Durban - In the outpatients’ entrance of uMlazi’s Prince Mshiyeni Hospital a large “Prevention of rabies in humans” poster – outlining the dangers, treatments and signs of the killer disease – catches the eye of patients and visitors passing through.

And inside the hospital lies a little boy in a semi-coma who may be the latest victim of the disease: a four-year-old child who has been fighting for his life since April after being bitten by what is thought to have been a rabid dog.

Siphesihle Nzuza’s doctors are “hoping and praying” that he can beat the low survival odds and pull through, while his mother, Sizakele, is too heartbroken to talk about it.

That he has survived this long is unusual and doctors hope this means the treatment he has been receiving for the past three months is working.

“The mortality rate is very high, but beating the disease can be done. He has been getting all the treatment, so maybe it’s working,” medical manager Dr Akhtar Hussain said on Tuesday.

“We are hoping and praying that he will pull through because we have been doing everything we can.”

However, just how long Siphesihle can remain semi-comatose is not certain.

Hussain explained that the child, who lives in Ngonyameni outside uMlazi, had been bitten by a dog in April. His mother had taken him to the local clinic for a rabies injection, but after a few days he had become very sick – hallucinating, with little energy and refusing to eat – and was admitted to hospital.

“He showed the signs and symptoms of rabies, such as salivating and infection of the brain.”

Doctors started treatment by excluding other brain infections such as meningitis, encephalitis and viral infections. They also sent saliva and skin biopsy samples for testing for rabies.

Although the results of these tests have not yet confirmed rabies, Hussain said a brain examination of the dog that bit Siphesihle – which had since died – confirmed that the rabies virus had been present.

“This made us clinically suspect rabies and we have been treating him for the disease.

“However, we are still not excluding other possibilities.”

Siphesihle’s mother was too distraught to speak about her son’s condition on Tuesday, walking away from the conversation, crying.

Dr Ayo Olowolagba, head of the communicable diseases department at City Health, said any dog that contracted rabies would die within 10 days. However, a human’s incubation period could be “some time”.

As tests could confirm rabies only after a person’s death, Olowolagba said Siphesihle’s case was being investigated. Although he showed signs of rabies, it was not 100 percent certain that the dog that had been tested was the one that had bitten him.

If the child is confirmed to have the disease, he will be the province’s fourth confirmed case.

The first was that of eight-year-old Luyanda Hlongwane, who died in May. Clementia Cele, 52, also died in May from the disease, while Underberg farmer Graeme Anderson, 29, died last month.

In light of these deaths, Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs spokesman Jeffrey Zikhali defended the move by MECs in the province to apply for a court order allowing department officials to take unvaccinated dogs to the SPCA, saying this was in the best interests of society.

“This is in light of three lives that have already been lost.

“Taking the animals away will be a last resort, and we will do all we can to get owners to get their dogs vaccinated, but, if they don’t, then we have to take this step.”

What is rabies?

Rabies is a contagious viral disease, passed from animal to human, that affects the brain and spinal cord. It is transmitted to humans and animals through contact with saliva or tissue of infected animals, such as bites, scratches, licks on broken skin and mucous membranes.

Symptoms include confusion, loss of appetite, blank stares, profuse salivation, headaches, fever, mental disorder, difficulty swallowing and muscular pain.

If bitten by an unvaccinated dog, people must immediately seek medical treatment. - The Mercury