Remarkably, Giese survived. She recovered most of her cognitive functions within a few months, and other skills within a year, Willoughby says. She got her driver's license and is now a sophomore at Marian University in Fond du Lac, where she is majoring in biology. There are lingering signs of her illness: Giese, once an avid athlete, says she now lists to one side when she runs and walks and no longer plays volleyball, basketball and softball as she once did. She also speaks more slowly and sometimes not as clearly as before her illness, but Willoughby says these effects may fade over time.
Giese is "pretty much normal," says Willoughby, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. "She continues to get better, counter to conventional medical thinking."
Rabies has an incubation period of two weeks to three months and kills within a week of the symptoms showing up. The vaccine series and other immune therapies are useless at this point and may even speed up and increase the severity of the symptoms. Usually, patients are made as comfortable as possible in the hospital or, in countries without sophisticated health care, sent home to die an agonizing death.
Antiviral drugs and immune therapies including steroids, disease-fighting interferon-alpha and poly IC (which stimulates the body's own production of interferon-alpha) have been tried, but none have been shown to be lifesaving on their own, Willoughby says.
Over the past four years, the Milwaukee protocol to differing degrees has been used a dozen times, but until now Giese was the sole survivor. Exactly why she lived—and the others died—is still a mystery.
In a 2005 report on her case in The New England Journal of Medicine, Willoughby speculated that she may have been infected with a rare, weakened version of the virus. Today, he chalks Giese's survival up to aggressive intensive care, the decision to sedate her "and 10 percent sheer luck." Which element of that combination made the difference, and whether the antivirals she was given helped save her is unknown.
"In all honesty, we were probably just pretty lucky," he says. Only another survivor, and then animal and clinical trials, will show if the therapy works, and why, he says. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) plans to test the protocol on rabies-infected ferrets; Thai and Canadian doctors, who unsuccessfully treated a 33-year-old man with rabies with the Milwaukee protocol, recommended in the Journal of NeuroVirology two years ago that physicians exercise "caution" in using the treatment, because it is too expensive and lacks " a clear scientific rationale." Willoughby says it cost about $800,000 to treat Giese.