Health Blog

Planning to Travel? Have You Had Your Rabies Vaccinations?

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You don’t even have to get bitten to acquire the rabies virus; a lick on an open wound by a rabid animal is enough to expose you to this fatal disease, so it’s very wise to be vaccinated if you plan to travel overseas. Most overseas countries have the rabies virus and, while Australia is officially free of the disease, some bat species here can carry a version, lyssavirus. Around 55-60,000 people die worldwide each year from rabies. Most are in developing and underdeveloped countries in Asia and Africa.

Vital Information About Exposure to Rabies:

  • Rabies is an extremely serious viral infection transmitted to humans by animal bites, scratches or even licking broken skin, an open wound, (the virus is in saliva) or the mouth or eyes, if the animal is rabid. You won’t know if an animal is suffering from rabies, so be very careful and wary of all animals when travelling overseas.
  • The rabies virus is most prevalent in dogs, cats, and bats, however any mammal (i.e. foxes, wolves, monkeys, squirrels and raccoons) can also carry the disease.
  • Any animal bites should automatically be deemed a rabies exposure because it’s highly problematic and time-consuming to check whether an animal has the disease or not.
  • If rabies is left untreated there is a 100 percent mortality rate.

It is strongly recommended that you have the rabies vaccination if you intend to travel overseas for any length of time, for business, working overseas, travelling in rabies endemic countries over long periods; for community workers, and especially for children who are more inquisitive and likely to pat or stroke animals and expose themselves to the risk of rabies.

What’s Involved in Having the Rabies Vaccinations?

The pre-exposure rabies vaccination course is currently being revised, but for the moment it consists of three injections given on days 0, 7, and 21-28, which gives good protection if administered before you travel. Talk to your travel doctor for more information and advice about pre-exposure vaccinations because you will still need to follow first aid protocols and seek two further vaccines if you are exposed to rabies. If you can’t have the course of injections before you travel, and are bitten by an animal overseas, it is crucial that you follow a post-exposure (after you’ve been bitten or exposed to the rabies virus) regime of vaccinations.

If You’ve Been Exposed to Rabies While Overseas:

  • Go to a hospital: Go straight to the nearest hospital or medical clinic as soon as possible.
  • Wound care is paramount: Wash the wound thoroughly with a mild soap and warm water for at least 15 minutes.
  • Use Betadine or povidine iodine: Apply Betadine/povidine iodine to the wound.
  • Don’t stitch the wound: Closing the wound is not advised.

A hospital or medical clinic may not always have supplies of a passive rabies vaccination called Human Rabies Immunoglobulin (HRIG). This post-exposure vaccination has to be administered around the wound and injected into your arm and it is only needed if you haven’t had the pre-exposure vaccine course. In some countries, equine rabies immunoglobulin (ERIG) from horse serum is used as a post-exposure rabies treatment.

You will also be given a regime of rabies vaccinations on day 0,3,7 and 14, but be aware, there is a worldwide shortage of vaccines and HRIG so they’re not available in many countries, especially in remote areas. In some regions, vaccines are not the cell culture formulation we use and instead they are derived from mouse brain nerve tissue and have to be administered as a series of large volume injections of vaccines –  these are not recommended by the World Health Organisation. If you can’t get the correct post-exposure vaccinations it is strongly recommended that you ask your travel insurer to organise to have you evacuated to an area where they do have supplies of suitable, potent vaccines and RIG.

If you plan to travel overseas for any length of time for any reason, check with your travel doctor, and if possible have the pre-exposure vaccinations before you leave. Even if you do have the pre-exposure vaccinations and are bitten or have an open wound that has been licked etc, you will still need precautionary post-exposure vaccinations to provide complete protection against rabies. Get the right information before you leave – best to be prepared!