When Birgitte Kallestad and her friends saw a helpless puppy on the side of the road while travelling in the Philippines in February, they couldn't help but pick it up and take it back to their resort. Kallestad washed it and played with it, her family later said, falling in love with the small creature, even when it started to bite her and her friends.

For Kallestad, saving the puppy proved fatal.

The 24-year old died on Monday in her native Norway after contracting the rabies virus, the Verdens Gang tabloid reports.

Rabies is a virus that can be transmitted from animals to humans via bites and saliva, and it can prove fatal if not treated early. According to the World Health Organisation, 99 per cent of rabies infections in humans are caused by dog bites.

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Stray dogs in South East Asia have the potential to carry the rabies virus, which is deadly if untreated. Photo / Getty
Stray dogs in South East Asia have the potential to carry the rabies virus, which is deadly if untreated. Photo / Getty

In a statement given to NRK, government-owned media in Norway, Kallestad's family explained that she had been back in Norway for a long time before she fell ill. Doctors struggled to solve the mystery of what was wrong. She made several trips to the emergency room of the hospital where she worked and was eventually admitted on April 28.

It wasn't until Thursday when doctors finally figured out she may have rabies, after learning she had been bitten while on holiday, Verdens Gang reported.

Kallestad, who was a health worker employed at Førde Central Hospital had patched up and sterilised the small bites herself while on holiday, with nobody in the group seeing the need for further medical attention.

"The patient was admitted to our intensive care unit, and died peacefully with the closest family around her," Trine Hunskar Vingsnes, director of health at Førde Central Hospital, told VG.

Birgitte Kallestad was diagnosed with rabies last Thursday, she died on Monday.
Birgitte Kallestad was diagnosed with rabies last Thursday, she died on Monday.

Norwegian officials say this is the first case of rabies reported in Norway in 200 years.

"Our dear Birgitte loved animals. Our fear is that this will happen to others who have a warm heart like her," the family statement said. They called for a rabies vaccine to be added to a list of inoculations for people travelling to the Philippines.

WHO lists the Philippines as a high-risk country for humans contracting rabies. More than 59,000 people worldwide die each year of the disease, which is preventable with a vaccine. But impoverished or disadvantaged communities with limited access to health care remain vulnerable to contracting rabies through dogs, an issue the WHO hopes to eliminate by 2030.

Initial symptoms of rabies include a fever and headaches, but as the disease worsens patients can suffer hallucinations, muscle spasms and respiratory failure.

Birgitte's friends who were on the trip and who were also in contact with the dog have been alerted and Norway's health trust has so far been in contact with 77 people who have been in contact with Birgitte.

Of these, 31 have been vaccinated, according to local media.