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First Known Case: Patient Survives Rabies Without Vaccine

TV report transcript

Officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say they are rethinking the way they treat rabies, after a girl contracted rabies and survived without the aid of a series anti-rabies injections. She was induced into a coma for seven days. VOA's Brian Purchia reports on the young American girl who has made medical history.

For the first time in a month, 15-year-old Jeanna Giese is breathing on her own. She remains weak, but her family says it's amazing she's even alive.

"Miracles can happen. We really believe that it did."

The Wisconsin teenager was bitten by a rabid bat. By the time Giese sought treatment about a month later -- she was exhibiting rabies symptoms -- loss of consciousness, double-vision, and slurred speech. Because it was too late to administer a rabies vaccine -- the prognosis was bleak. Dr. Rodney Willoughby:

"I knew in fact this was a 100 percent fatal disease."

So doctors at Milwaukee's Children's Hospital of Wisconsin took a gamble -- inducing Giese into a coma in order to protect her brain. Brain dysfunction is the most immediate cause of death from rabies, not the disease itself.

Physicians gave her a cocktail of two anti-viral drugs to boost the immune system and two anesthetics to protect the nervous system -- and then waited for the virus to run its course. The innovative approach had never been tried before -- but it worked.

"It was kind of a slow process, her waking up. Even probably before her eyes opened, she squeezed my hand. So, it's exciting."

Doctors say Giese did more than just beat the odds. She's the first known patient to survive rabies without a vaccine. Only five others have lived after the onset of symptoms -- but each of those survivors had been immunized. Doctors warn against premature excitement about a new possible treatment for rabies. They say this therapy has to be repeated successfully in other patients. Until then, it could be classified as a miracle.