50 years ago, a 6-year-old boy became the first known rabies survivor

Excerpt from the December 4, 1971 issue of Science News

an electron micrograph showing the rabies virus

Rabies virus, shown in this electron micrograph magnified 70,000x, is nearly always fatal once people begin to show symptoms. Although vaccines can protect people from becoming ill, researchers have for decades attempted without success to find a cure.

F. A. Murphy/University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, Texas

Apparent cure for rabiesScience News, December 4, 1971

The painful and always fatal virus disease rabies may at last be licked — not with the traditional series of rabies vaccine shots that sometimes ward off the disease after a person has been bitten by a rabid animal, but by the timely use of relatively simple medical techniques.… As a result [a 6-year-old boy] is the world’s only known survivor of rabies.


Though the boy was vaccinated, the shots — which have improved since the 1970s — didn’t prevent disease. Medical techniques used to treat him, including inserting a tube to help him breathe, giving seizure medication and draining fluid buildup on the brain, proved that rabies patients can survive. Yet the disease is still almost always fatal once people show symptoms. In 2004, a 15-year-old girl became the first known unvaccinated rabies survivor (SN: 1/29/05, p. 77). Doctors treated her using the M­ilwaukee Protocol. This controversial method puts patients in a coma to protect the brain while the immune system mounts defenses. But even with that treatment, most patients still die.

Erin I. Garcia de Jesus is a staff writer at Science News. She holds a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Washington and a master’s in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.