A handful of staff members at Walter Reed Army Medical Center who have come in contact with a Marine Corps captain suspected of having rabies began taking the first of a series of shots yesterday to inoculate themselves against the often-fatal disease.
The workers received an anti-rabies shot and a large dosage of gamma globulin. Over the next three weeks, the workers are scheduled to receive another four shots of the vaccine. Hospital officials said the workers were being inoculated as a precautionary measure, even though doctors said they have yet to firmly diagnose the Marine's illness as rabies and there are no known cases of human-to-human transmission of the disease.
The 33-year-old captain is still in critical condition in the hospital's intensive care unit with partially paralyzed arms and legs and a temperature ranging from 104 to 107 degrees, according to Dr. Robert Redfield, a major in the Army's Infectious Disease Service.
Redfield said the Marine, whose name has not been disclosed, is also suffering from inflammation of the brain and that his kidneys have failed. The Marine is on a respirator to assist his breathing and on a dialysis machine to purify his blood.
The Marine, who was stationed at Quantico Marine Base, may have been exposed to a rabid raccoon the first week in January while hunting on the base with two companions. He was treated first at Dewitt Medical Center at Fort Belvoir and moved to Walter Reed on March 2.
Walter Reed officials invited the media to watch the hospital staff members take their shots as part of an effort to counteract any fear that Washington-area residents might have that somehow large numbers of people may soon contract the disease. A large number of people who have been patients or visited the hospital since the Marine was admitted have called to inquire whether they should take the shots.
Public health officials have warned against contact with wild, possibly rabid animals. But Redfield stressed that the only possible way a rabies victim could transmit the disease to another person would be through a corneal transplant or direct transmission of one person's fluids or saliva into a another person's open wounds or mucous membranes in the mouth, nose or eyes.
Hospital spokesman Peter B. Esker said that 205 people have been identified who have had contact with the Marine in recent weeks and that 18 of them have been "offered the opportunity" to take the anti-rabies shots based on the degree of contact they had with him. He said that another 15 people are being questioned further and may also be urged to take the vaccine shots, which are administered in the arm rather than by an older method, through the stomach wall.
Trish Coggeshall, a 29-year-old microbiologist at Walter Reed, said she possibly touched some of the Marine's spinal fluid during a laboratory test while she had paper cuts on her fingers and as a result decided to take the series of shots.
Maj. John Maloney, a nurse who helped resuscitate the Marine on March 6, said he thought the shots were worthwhile. "The disease is worse than getting the shots."
"I will do what the experts say," said Army Maj. Gilcin F. Meadors III, one of the Marine's doctors and who also started taking the shots.