5 RABIES FACTS YOU NEED TO KNOW!

Rabies Monkey

Wherever you travel there will be stray animals! Dogs may follow you around – we have definitely experienced this with hot chicken on the street in Bali! Monkeys can jump off a tree and land on your head! (Also bats can fly...eep!) But these are not the only animals to be aware of… So what other animals carry rabies? Is rabies dangerous? Can you protect yourself from rabies before you travel? Read on to find out more!

Five Facts To Know About Rabies

Rabies dog
Don’t be tempted to pet a cute dog, stay a safe distance away. You can’t see rabies – remember it’s a virus!

1. Animals that carry Rabies

  1. Dogs
  2. Cats
  3. Bats
  4. Monkeys
  5. Foxes
  6. Raccoons
  7. Skunks
  8. Cows
    I bet that’s a surprising list! Yes, these 8 animals can pass rabies onto humans. (B-b-bonus fact: Rabies can be passed between these animals too! For example, a dog can infect a cat by biting it or a skunk can bite a cow etc.)

2. Rabies is transmitted through saliva

Rabies is a virus carried in the saliva of an infected (rabid) animal. If an animal bites you the saliva that gets through your skin and into your bloodstream carries the rabies into your body. Similarly, when an animal licks an open wound, on your foot for example, the saliva carries rabies into your body. Oh it doesn’t stop there! Animals put things in their mouth to eat them- so their hands and nails get covered in saliva. When an animal scratches you with their nails covered in saliva – that’s right- rabies gets in! It’s also possible that an animal’s saliva can get into your nose, eyes or mouth – imagine an animal sneezing or spitting on your face (ew- sorry for the graphic). Bat bites in particular are notoriously small and difficult to detect – so if a bat has come extremely close to you then take steps to get treatment for rabies before symptoms develop!

Yes that’s us… innocently cave exploring in Thailand… not knowing that there would be a lot of bats at the exit…

3. Rabies travels through the nervous system

This is important to know because the location of the bite radically affects your chances of survival. Rabies travels extremely slowly once it gets into your nervous system. Your brain is the target organ the rabies virus wants to get to (mmm… brains). Rabies causes brain swelling and…it’s irreversible from there. Certain death.

Let’s say you get bitten on your big toe – it’s a fair distance away from your brain – so even if you got bitten by a cute dog on holiday five years ago, you should still be treated for rabies (yes, GO RIGHT NOW if you’re reading this and just had a flashback!). The reasoning being that the rabies virus is still travelling to get to your brain and it can take decades before it silently reaches your brain and kills you. Or the rabies virus is incubating 😮

Food for thought: One Saturday I had a patient who came in off a plane from Vietnam to the Pharmacy Travel clinic. A monkey, on a chain, had climbed and jumped off a tree onto his head and scratched his forehead and ear. He had already had two doses of rabies vaccine in Vietnam but had to come straight back home to the UK for a further two emergency doses to save his life!

Monkey Rabies Risk Travel Health
Got off a small boat ride and onto a small island in Vietnam… only to find it swarming with monkeys that love taking food from tourists!

4. Rabies is irreversible once symptoms develop

It’s extremely rare to survive rabies once the virus has reached the brain. But you can have symptoms within hours of after years depending on the state of the virus (whether it’s dormant or fast travelling). That’s why it’s so important (in my opinion) to get vaccinated before you are even bitten as it could literally save your life! (NOTE: even if you are vaccinated, you still need to seek emergency medical attention for a short treatment course).

Early symptoms include having a fever, headache and cold-like symptoms. Don’t forget the site of the bite is a wound so the skin could be sore, tender and may start weeping if it gets infected.

Late stage symptoms include hallucinating, aggression, paralysis, salivating profusely and asphyxiation…and then, inevitably, death.

Cat Rabies
Stray cat lounging on our breakfast table at an inn in Vietnam. Can you tell if the cat has been vaccinated against rabies? Nope… so stay away!

5. Rabies is preventable!

Of course you can prevent rabies. Well done for being a mindful traveler and briefing yourself on these rabies risks!
Here are some easy tips everyone can follow to prevent rabies:

  1. Avoid all or any interaction with potential rabid animals in general – especially cats, dogs and bats!
  2. Wear thick, long sleeved clothing to prevent getting scratches that may later attract a dog or cat to lick them.
  3. Wear durable, protective shoes (not flipflops!) that cover your toes to prevent cuts, again to prevent a dog or cat wanting to lick them.
  4. Cover up your wounds so they are not exposed!
  5. Avoid carrying food, especially the smelly variety, so animals don’t follow you or jump on you.
  6. Carry soap and water for cleaning any potential bite wounds – wash the wound with alcohol or iodine too – then go to the nearest emergency medical treatment center!
  7. Ideally get a course of three rabies vaccines (which can be completed within 21 days before travelling). Once complete you will be protected for up to 10 years. If you get bitten STILL SEEK EMERGENCY ADVICE STRAIGHT AWAY. Always let the emergency services know that you have had a course of 3 vaccines so they can treat you easily. (If you are not vaccinated then you may need special, expensive, rare treatment and may need to re-locate or take a flight go home for treatment!)
  8. B-b-bonus tip: Get travel insurance and make sure it covers you for rabies treatment which can be expensive! Be aware that there have been cases of counterfeit rabies vaccines in some countries – if the price is too good to be true then think twice – your health could be at serious risk!

Summary

Hopefully you have been enlightened in this article and feel well equipped with the knowledge to keep you safe from the perils of rabies! As always, stay healthy and safe travels!

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I am a UK GPhC registered Pharmacist in London