Wisconsin Woman Survives Rabies Without Vaccine, Marking Medical Milestone

Jeanna Giese, a Wisconsin woman, survived rabies without the vaccine in 2004 after being bitten by a bat. She was treated with an experimental coma-inducing protocol, becoming the first person to recover from rabies without vaccination.

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Bijay Laxmi
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Wisconsin Woman Survives Rabies Without Vaccine, Marking Medical Milestone

Wisconsin Woman Survives Rabies Without Vaccine, Marking Medical Milestone

In a remarkable medical feat, Jeanna Giese, a Wisconsin woman, became the first person to survive rabies without receiving the life-saving vaccine in 2004. Now, 20 years later, Giese is alive and thriving, crediting an experimental treatment that induced a coma to suppress brain activity for her survival.

The incident occurred on a Sunday morning at Giese's local church in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, when a bat flew into the building and was swatted down by an usher. Giese, then 15 years old and an animal lover, asked her mother if she could pick up the bat and take it outside. As she was about to place the bat into a tree, it bit her on the finger, leaving a nearly microscopic mark. "I always get asked, 'Did it hurt? Did ya feel it?' Yeah, I felt it. It hurt a lot," Giese recalled.

Why this matters: This medical breakthrough has significant implications for the treatment of rabies, a disease that claims thousands of lives worldwide each year. The success of the Milwaukee Protocol, the experimental treatment used to save Giese's life, could pave the way for new approaches to combating this deadly disease.

Three weeks later, Giese began to feel extremely lethargic and nauseous. She was taken to St. Agnes Hospital in Fond du Lac, where doctors tested her for various conditions, including meningitis and Lyme disease, but all tests came back negative. As her condition worsened, she was transferred to Children's Hospital of Wisconsin in Wauwatosa, where Dr. Rodney Willoughby, a pediatric doctor specializing in infectious diseases, took over her care.

Dr. Willoughby sent samples to the Centers for Disease Control in Georgia, where the diagnosis of rabies was confirmed. With the classic rabies vaccine no longer an option, Dr. Willoughby decided to try an experimental treatment: inducing a coma to suppress brain activity and allow Giese's immune system to fight off the virus. "Well, I thought she was going to die. That's what they all did. That's about the extent of my knowledge of rabies at the time was that there wasn't much to do. It's really 100% fatal," Dr. Willoughby said.

Giese was placed in a medically induced coma for 14 days. When she slowly began to wake up, she was unable to move or talk. However, with extensive physical, occupational, and speech therapy, she slowly regained control of her life. "I don't quit. I guess it's personal stubbornness," Giese remarked.

Giese is now known around the world as a medical marvel, being the first person on record to survive rabies without getting the vaccine. She has been extensively covered by local media and has become a mother of three. According to Dr. Willoughby, there are only 45 known survivors of rabies, with 18 of them overcoming the virus using the Milwaukee Protocol, the experimental treatment used to save Giese's life.

Rabies has a 99% kill rate, and about 60,000 Americans are bitten by potentially rabid animals every year. The disease spreads to the brain, causing inflammation that destroys brain cells, making it nearly always fatal if not treated within 72 hours. Giese's remarkable survival story stands as a testament to the power of medical innovation and the human spirit. "It's almost surreal to think, ya know, 20 years. My life changed completely when I got sick," Giese reflected.

Key Takeaways

  • Jeanna Giese, a Wisconsin woman, survived rabies without a vaccine in 2004.
  • She was 15 when bitten by a bat, and 3 weeks later, symptoms appeared.
  • Dr. Rodney Willoughby used an experimental treatment, inducing a coma, to save her life.
  • Giese is the first person to survive rabies without a vaccine, and only 45 known survivors exist.
  • The "Milwaukee Protocol" treatment has since been used to save 18 others from rabies.