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Bat-bite victims angry at lack of rabies vaccine

Ray and Cheryl Summer were bitten by a fruit bat in their garden.

Ray and Cheryl Summer were bitten by a fruit bat in their garden. Photo: Angela Wylie

A Melton couple who were scratched and bitten by a bat have been forced to take unregistered medicine after finding out Australia had run out of the usual rabies vaccine.

Ray Sumner sent an email to Radio 3AW on Tuesday morning, telling the station he was outraged the medicine he was forced to take instead of the usual "RIg" vaccine was not registered in Australia or the United States.

Mr Sumner later told The Age that when he and his wife Cheryl saw a bat tangled in the net covering their fruit trees, their first instinct was to free the "poor little bugger".

Little did they know this simple act of kindness would spiral into days of worry as they monitored Mr Sumner's condition.

Mr Sumner said the couple tried to cut the panicking bat out of the netting, only to suffer bites and scratches in the process.

"As soon as we got him free, we went to the doctor's, who then sent us to the hospital because he did not have access to the rabies vaccine," Mr Sumner said.

When they arrived at Sunshine Hospital, initially only to help treat Ms Sumner's bites, the couple were told about the shortage of rabies vaccines in Australia.

They were then asked to sign a waiver before taking an alternative medicine, which had recently been flown in from Israel to replace the usual vaccine.

"I was extremely angry when I saw that we had to sign a waiver form so we could be administered an unregistered product.

"Who would have thought that in 2014, Australia had no vaccines for rabies?"

After conducting some research, Mr Sumner returned to the hospital to have the injection as well, only to be left waiting for eight hours because the secondary vaccine was lost.

"I was extremely angry to say the least," he said.

"They lost my vaccine, and every time I asked about it, they kept telling me it was on its way - for eight hours."

He said he was "hoping everything was fine and the bat wasn't infected."

"It's not the fact that I was injected late; it's being injected by a substance that hasn't yet been registered in Australia or the US that worries me."

Although Dr Rosemary Lester, Victoria's Chief Health Officer, admitted the process of signing a waiver form did not inspire confidence in patients, she said "we've got no reason to believe this product is not safe".

"There have been no cases of rabies in the history of Australia, and only three cases of Lyssavirus," she said.

The Victorian Department of Health posted a notice on its website on December 18, warning the public about the "temporary change to rabies immunoglobulin (RIg) access".

Imogam, the usual vaccine used in Australia, will not be available until April, due to "a worldwide shortage".

The only reason the drug had not been registered in Australia was that there have been no applications to register it, the notice said. However, because it was not registered, the medicine "has not yet undergone a full assessment of safety and efficacy by the TGA in Australia".

Dr Lester said US was currently trialling the drug so it could be registered.

"[But] we believe the risks of not receiving this product outweigh any small risk of receiving it," she said.

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