Four years after she nearly died from rabies, Jeanna Giese is being heralded as the first person known to have survived the virus without receiving a preventative vaccine. But Giese (pronounced Gee-See) says she would gladly share that honor with others if only doctors could show that the treatment used to save her could spare other victims as well. "They shouldn't stop 'till it's perfected," said Giese, now 19, during a recent interview about physicians' quest to refine the technique that may have kept her alive.
Giese's wish may come true. Another young girl infected with rabies is still alive more than a month after doctors induced a coma to put her symptoms on hold, just as they did with Giese. Yolanda Caicedo, an infectious disease specialist at Hospital Universitario del Valle in Cali, Colombia, who is treating the latest survivor, confirmed reports in the Colombian newspaper El País that the victim is an eight-year-old girl who came down with symptoms in August, about a month after she was bitten by an apparently rabid cat. Caicedo said that the family had sought treatment for the bite in Bolivar, at a hospital about three hours by foot from their rural home, but that the child, Nelsy Gomez, did not receive the series of vaccines that can prevent the virus from turning into full-blown rabies.
The five shots contain minute amounts of the dead rabies virus and are designed to nudge the body into developing antibodies to fight it. Patients are also given a shot of immunoglobulin (in this case a synthesized rabies antibody) to protect them while their immune systems produce antibodies to the vaccine virus. But the combination is only effective within six days of infection, before symptoms show up; when Gomez developed signs of the disease, it was too late for the shots. With no other options available, doctors induced a coma.
Caicedo is hopeful, but indicated that Gomez will face a long, slow recovery. She would not say how long Gomez was comatose but told ScientificAmerican.com that she had been awake for "a few days" and is stable. The child can move her fingers but cannot walk or eat on her own, and her eyes are open but she cannot speak yet and physicians are not sure if she can see, Caicedo says.
Giese, informed of the case, says that she "hopes and prays" that Gomez will survive.
Giese was the keynote speaker at a conference last week in Atlanta, where scientists gathered to discuss the latest research being conducted on ways to battle the deadly disease. During her talk, she urged physicians to continue efforts to pin down treatments that work.
Giese was 15 when she was infected after being bitten by a rabid bat she had picked up outside her church in her hometown of Fond du Lac, Wisc.