Rabies is a virus caused by the bite or scratch of an infected animal, and is usually fatal once rabies symptoms appear. Rabies treatment is very effective, but you must receive it as soon as possible. Rabies is rare in the UK but common around the world, so rabies prevention is important if you are travelling in a risk country.
You are at risk of contracting rabies if you are bitten or scratched by an infected animal.
Animal saliva can also cause rabies if an animal licks an open wound or their saliva gets into your mouth or eyes, but this is uncommon.
All mammals can cause rabies, but animals with the greatest risk include dogs, bats, raccoons, foxes, jackals, cats and mongooses.
Dogs are responsible for the transmission of rabies in 99% of cases, so it is important you do not approach or touch stray dogs in risk countries.
You cannot get rabies from being around someone who is infected by the disease.
The rabies virus is present on all continents, except Antarctica, and occurs in more than 150 countries.
The risk of rabies transmission is highest in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America, especially in rural areas where stray dogs are unlikely to have been vaccinated.
The rabies risk by country varies, but Africa and Asia are the two continents where most cases occur, including 95% of rabies deaths worldwide.
In the Americas, bats now carry the biggest rabies threat. In Australia and Western Europe, the threat of rabies transmission from bats is also increasing.
A small number of bats carry the rabies virus in the UK, but there has only been one death caused by bats infecting humans with rabies here since 1946.
All other cases of rabies, that have occurred in the UK, have been in British travellers who had been infected abroad.
It is important to know that outbreaks can occur anywhere in the world. This means that the rabies risk areas change.
Check if the country you are travelling to has a risk of rabies through the search bar below.
Once rabies symptoms appear, the disease is almost always fatal. However, rabies treatment received before symptoms appear is almost always 100% effective, so you must seek help quickly.
Without treatment, the early symptoms of rabies will usually develop after three to 12 weeks, which is known as the rabies incubation period, but signs of rabies can start sooner or much later than this.
Rabies symptoms can include:
discomfort at the site of the bite
frothing at the mouth
difficulty swallowing and breathing
If you do not receive prompt rabies treatment, you can become seriously ill, leading to paralysis, coma and death. Therefore, it is recommended that you take precautions and check if you need the vaccine.
If you have been bitten or scratched by an animal while travelling in an area that has a rabies risk, you should see a doctor for a prompt diagnosis.
Rabies diagnosis usually involves several tests. The doctors will usually need to take samples of your saliva, skin, blood and fluid from your spine.
The rabies virus can cause your brain to become swollen, so scans of your head can also be carried out to help your doctor make a diagnosis.
In some cases, depending on where you are in the world, the infected animal you had contact with may be tested for rabies too. This can help doctors decide how great your rabies risk is, if you are yet to show rabies symptoms.
There is no rabies cure, however, there are ways of effectively treating the disease if you see a doctor as soon as possible, ideally within a few hours of becoming infected.
If you do not seek rabies treatment until after symptoms appear, your chances of surviving the disease are very low.
If you are bitten, scratched or licked by an animal in an area with a rabies risk you should:
immediately clean the wound with running water
clean the wound with an alcohol or iodine based disinfectant
apply a simple dressing if possible
go and see a doctor as soon as possible
You should not wait until you return to the UK to seek medical help.
It is a good idea to keep a list of important telephone numbers with you when travelling abroad, including who you can contact for medical treatment.
In hospital, your rabies treatment may include further washing of the wound and a booster course of the rabies vaccine, if you have been vaccinated, or a full course if you have not.
You may also be given a medicine that can provide immediate, but short-term, protection if there is a significant chance you have been infected. This is known as rabies immunoglobulin.
In cases where rabies treatment has been delayed too long, treatment will focus on making the person as comfortable as possible before they die.
There are many things you can do to decrease your risk of rabies transmission, including avoiding contact with infected animals and getting vaccinated.
If you need to get the rabies vaccine, you can book a vaccination appointment online today.
If you are unsure if the yellow fever vaccine is right for you, book a free telephone consultation to speak to one of our prescribing nurses who can give you a personal recommendation based on your health and travel plans.
For effective rabies prevention while travelling in risk areas, it is recommended that you:
check if you need the rabies vaccine
learn about rabies so you can spot signs
do not approach any animals
do not pick up ill or unusually tame animals or offer food
do not attract stray animals by being careless with litter
are aware of animals when doing outdoor activities
avoid touching dead animals
keep emergency contact details with you at all times
Anne Marie Major, Independent Nurse Prescriber
24 June 2019