PHA warn travellers on the risk of rabies

An ever-growing number of students are taking a year out (gap-year) to travel the world, and many are so enthused by the adventure that lies ahead that they forget the importance of seeking medical advice on whether the country or countries they are visiting require vaccinations against some serious diseases.

With international travel comes an increased health risk, so immunisation is essential to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.

Rabies is an acute viral infection and it is essential to get treatment if you have been bitten, as rabies is almost certainly fatal. The infection causes swelling of the brain and symptoms usually start 2–8 weeks after being bitten or scratched. Early-stage symptoms of rabies include malaise (feeling of general discomfort or uneasiness), headache and fever, progressing to acute pain, violent movements, uncontrolled excitement, depression, and hydrophobia (panic when presented with liquids to drink and an unquenchable thirst).

Dr Michael Devine, Consultant in Health Protection, PHA, said: “Rabies is spread through animal salvia, usually a bite, but it can also be spread through a scratch or by an animal licking a cut or wound, or saliva getting into the eyes, mouth or nose. It cannot be transmitted through intact skin. It is commonly spread by dogs, but can be spread by other mammals, including cats and monkeys. You cannot tell if an animal has the disease as they may appear well.”

He continued: “People may be used to thinking about rabies when they go to more exotic locations like Asia and Africa, but it can also be present closer to home, such as in some eastern European countries. So it is always best to play it safe and avoid animals, especially strays.”

People who should be immunised against rabies include those who work with animals and travellers to remote areas where medical help is not available. The rabies vaccine is very effective – almost 100%. Booster doses may be required after one year and then every 2–5 years for people who continue to be at risk.

If you are bitten by an animal while abroad seek medical attention immediately, even if you have been previously immunised, as treatment may be given to reduce risk of developing the disease.

Further information

Contact the PHA Press Office on 028 9031 1611.

Notes to the editor

  1. 1.    There are a number of ways to protect against rabies:
  • Avoid contact with stray animals.
  • If someone is bitten or scratched and the skin is broken it is important that they seek urgent medical attention – while still on holiday.
  • Immediate first aid that the person can carry out includes washing any salvia off with soap and water and irrigating the wound with iodine solution or alcohol if available.