American girl, 15, is first rabies patient to survive without vaccine

Click to follow

Little more than a month ago 15-year-old Jeanna Giese was critically ill with rabies after a bat bit her during a service at her local church. She had failed to obtain medical treatment immediately and by the time she did see doctors they decided that because her symptoms had already developed, it was too late to use the usual vaccine.

Instead, they tried a radical experiment, placing Jeanna in a drug-induced coma and injecting her with a mix of anti-viral drugs. At the church where she was bitten, family and friends turned to prayer.

Now Jeanna's doctors say she is cured, the first person to have survived rabies without the vaccine. Only a handful of people - perhaps as few as five - have survived after developing even the earliest symptoms of rabies, and all of them were given the vaccine.

The specialist who prescribed the cocktail of drugs described it as a "miracle". Stacey Muller, a spokeswoman for the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, where Jeanna was treated, said: "This is the first documented case where someone has survived without the vaccine. After being bitten by a bat you absolutely should get treatment but she did not.

"By the time she was admitted to hospital her symptoms had already developed so the doctors wanted to try to do something to boost her immune system. She was admitted directly to the paediatric intensive-care unit."

Jeanna, from Fond du Lac in eastern Wisconsin, contracted the disease on 12 September after she picked up a bat from the floor of the town's St Patrick church and it bit her on her left hand. Her family said that because the bat was able to fly away people presumed it was healthy and they did not go to a doctor. By the time she was admitted to hospital a month later she had double vision and slurred speech, and was slipping in and out of consciousness.

Dr Rodney Willoughby, the hospital's associate professor of paediatrics, said: "As society has developed, people have forgotten the folklore about not playing with stray animals, or staying away from bats."

Doctors had agreed that because Jeanna's symptoms were so advanced, prescribing the vaccine would weaken her. Dr Willoughby said he also decided to induce the coma because there is evidence that rabies did not permanently damage any part of the brain but it caused temporary dysfunction of those areas which control critical functions such as breathing.

This week doctors said they expect Jeanna to be home by Christmas. She is conscious, breathing on her own and is able to sit up in a chair. She is not yet speaking, but doctors said she could communicate.

Doctors declined to list the drugs they prescribed until the results appear in a medical journal. Dr Willoughby told The New York Times: "You have to see this therapy repeated successfully in another patient. Until then, it is a miracle." The Centres for Disease Control, in Atlanta, Georgia, have confirmed Jeanna's unique status. Dr Charles Rupprecht called the recovery "historic".

But the teenager's family said they believed their prayers made the crucial difference. Her father, John Giese, told reporters: "The day after we found out, I called on everyone we knew for prayer. We believe a lot of that snowballed and it really made a difference. Miracles can happen. We really believe that it did."

In 2001, the latest available yardstick, 7,437 cases of animal rabies were reported in the United States but no humans were affected. The most frequently reported animals are raccoons (37.2 per cent), skunks (30.7 per cent), bats (17.2 per cent), foxes (5.9 per cent), and rodents (0.7 per cent).