updated 11/24/2004 11:58:03 AM ET 2004-11-24T16:58:03

Doctors said Tuesday they successfully treated a teenager with a usually fatal case of rabies by using a novel combination of drugs.

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Lacking any other treatment, doctors gambled on the experimental combination and induced a coma in 15-year-old Jeanna Giese to stave off the rabies infection, said Dr. Rodney Willoughby, a pediatric disease infection specialist at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, in suburban Milwaukee.

“No one had really done this before, even in animals,” Willoughby said. “None of the drugs are fancy. If this works it can be done in a lot of countries.”

Only five people in the world before Jeanna are known to have survived rabies after the onset of symptoms, said Dr. Charles Rupprecht, chief of the rabies section at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. But they had received standard treatment — a series of rabies vaccine shots — before experiencing symptoms.

Rabies, which attacks the brain and the nervous system, is considered untreatable with the appearance of symptoms, which include fever, headache, anxiety, loss of consciousness.

“Basically we had a race and Jeanna won. Her immune system won,” Rupprecht said at a news conference on Tuesday.

Rupprecht said the CDC is reevaluating its approach to rabies in people, and scientists are studying what drug combinations might work in infected animals.

Although the United States has only a few cases of human rabies each year, someone in the world dies of rabies every 15 minutes on average, Rupprecht said.

'Miracles can happen'
Jeanna was infected when she was bitten by a bat while at church Sept. 12 but she did not seek treatment. She began showing rabies symptoms Oct. 13 and was hospitalized two days later.

Willoughby said he had not expected Giese to survive when she was admitted to the hospital. But he said he studied numerous cases of the disease, and a team of consultants, including CDC officials, decided within four hours to go ahead with the experimental treatment.

Willoughby said the treatment with two anesthetics and two antiviral medications will have to be duplicated in another patient before it can be credited as a rabies treatment. Willoughby said he would not reveal the exact drugs used until a report is published in a medical journal.

Doctors do not know whether Jeanna will have neurological or physical problems from the attack on her immune system. She is in a rehabilitation ward at the hospital and doctors hope to release her by Christmas. Her parents said she stood up for the first time Tuesday and recognizes people when they come in the room.

John and Ann Giese, of Fond du Lac, said they did not hesitate when doctors approached them about trying the experimental treatment. They already had been told their daughter likely would die.

“Miracles can happen,” John Giese said. “We believed it from day one. We had to convince everyone else.”

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