A Belfast woman was last night fighting for her life after she was diagnosed with what is believed to be rabies — the first case in Northern Ireland for 70 years.
Although more tests were set to be conducted on the patient later today, initial tests conducted over the weekend proved positive for the deadly disease.
The woman, who was initially treated at the Ulster Hospital but later transferred to the Royal Victoria Hospital, had been abroad but began to feel unwell after being home for a number of months.
The woman’s family were last night too upset to speak about her condition.
A spokesman for the Royal Hospital said: “The patient’s condition has not changed in the last number of hours and she remains critically ill.
“The patient is being treated in an intensive care unit and her family have been kept informed of her condition.”
Northern Ireland Health Minister Michael McGimpsey received updates on the case over the weekend.
He said: “I am aware of this case and have been advised that the risk to other people’s health is extremely remote.”
“Healthcare staff who have had contact with this patient are being offered prophylaxis as a precautionary measure.
“There is no risk to other patients in the two hospitals where this person has been treated.”
A spokesman for the Eastern Board confirmed it was leading a multi-agency investigation into the matter.
Added the spokesman: “The patient involved had previously been overseas in an area associated with rabies in animals and may have been bitten there.
“Any risk to the wider community is negligible. There is no documented case of human to human transmission of rabies anywhere in the world.
“The patient poses no risk to other patients or to visitors.
“All necessary steps on infection control are in place for the protection of staff,” added the spokesman.
“The board and its partner agencies are taking national expert advice from the Health Protection Agency and the Veterinary Laboratories Agency.
“We are satisfied that all necessary steps to protect public health are in place.”
Dr Maureen McCartney, a consultant in communicable disease control with the Eastern Board, urged travellers to take precautions when visiting countries where the killer disease is common.
These include places such as Asia, Africa and South America. A number of incidents have also been reported in Eastern European countries.
“The disease is still widespread in a number of countries and people should remember to take the rabies vaccine,” explained Dr McCartney.
“It is very unfortunate for this individual to have contracted the disease but there is no risk of it being passed on to other humans.
“I have never come across it in Northern Ireland but I would urge people to take precautions when travelling to regions where dogs or wild animals may have the disease.”
Only three cases of rabies have occurred in the UK since 2000, with the most recent case in 2005 after a man was bitten by a dog in Goa. The last person to be diagnosed with rabies in Northern Ireland occurred in 1938.
Humans generally suffer from a fever before slipping into a coma, but there is no risk of sufferers spreading the disease to others.
The deadly disease affects the central nervous system but can be prevented through a vaccination programme.