Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) for rabies is widely administered and highly effective. Nevertheless, sporadic breakthrough infections (ie, rabies in people who have started PEP) have been reported. We conducted a systematic review of articles published between Jan 1, 1980 and June 1, 2022 to characterise breakthrough infections. After reviewing 3380 articles from across all continents, we identified 52 articles, which included a total of 122 breakthrough infections. We classified breakthrough infections on the basis of adherence to core practices (ie, wound cleaning and vaccine administration). Of 86 breakthrough infections with data, median time from exposure to symptom onset was 20 days (IQR 16-24). Most (89 [77%] of 115) participants received PEP within 2 days of an exposure. Severe wounds (defined as those involving multiple wound sites or bites to the head, face, or neck) were common (80 [69%] of 116 [with data]). Deviations from core practices were reported in 68 (56%) of 122 cases. Other possible causes for breakthrough infections included errors in the administration of rabies immunoglobulin, delays in seeking health care, and comorbidities or immunosuppression. Cold-chain integrity assessments and potency testing of PEP biologics were only rarely assessed (8 [7%] of 122 cases), neither of which were found to be a cause of breakthrough infections. Timely and appropriate administration of PEP is crucial to prevent rabies, and although people with high-risk exposures or immunosuppression can develop rabies despite adherence to core practices, this occurrence remains exceedingly rare.

  • All age groups
  • Efficacy/effectiveness
  • Rabies