Found in most parts of the world, the rabies virus affects the nervous system and brain. Once signs of the disease appear, rabies could be fatal. Travellers going to areas where rabies is present should consider immunisation.
Rabies is a very serious disease caused by a group of viruses called Lyssavirus. The rabies virus infects domestic and wild animals such as dogs, cats, bats and foxes, who then carry the virus in their saliva. Rabies is most commonly spread to humans through bites from infected animals.
The rabies virus does not enter the bloodstream; instead it infects the nervous system and travels to the brain where it causes disease. Once signs of the disease appear, rabies almost always leads to death.
Symptoms of rabies usually develop 3 to 8 weeks after infection – yet they can develop earlier or, rarely, years later. If an infected animal bites a part of the body that has a rich supply of nerves (such as the face, neck and fingers), symptoms are likely to develop more quickly.
The initial symptoms can be vague and include fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, cough, sore throat, muscle pain and tiredness. As the disease progresses, symptoms such as anxiety, confusion, abnormal behaviour, hallucinations, fear of water, fear of air, hyperactivity and rapid breathing develops, which leads to death.
This is not a full list of symptoms that can occur following exposure to rabies. If you feel unwell while travelling or when you return home, make sure you see a doctor as soon as possible.
In countries where rabies is common, dogs, cats and bats are the usual carriers of the rabies virus, however any mammal, even monkeys, could have the virus. Infected animals carry the virus in their saliva and it is most commonly spread to humans through a bite or scratch from an infected animal that has broken the skin.
Although rabies is not common in some countries such as Australia, it is still a problem in other parts of the world including much of Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. The rabies status of a country can change at any time.
In countries where rabies is common, travellers may be at risk if they're exposed to an infected animal (domestic or wild). The risk of infection is considered higher for:
- those spending a lot of time outdoors, such as campers
- those camping in caves, due to the increased exposure to bats
- travellers with occupational risks such as vets and those working with wildlife
- long-term travellers who are spending time in areas where rabies is common
- children, as they are more likely to play with animals.
Other people may be at risk of rabies. Please speak to your doctor regarding your individual circumstances.
The rabies vaccine is recommended for travellers visiting countries where the risk of contracting the virus is high. The likelihood of coming into contact with animals should be taken into account, as well as the level of access to emergency treatment. When planning your travel, talk to your doctor about your travel plans, bearing in mind that three doses of rabies vaccine is required and will take a month to complete.
It is also recommended that travellers to countries where the risk of rabies is high should avoid close contact with domestic and wild animals. Some measures to reduce the risk of infection include:
- taking care when walking, running or cycling to avoid contact with stray dogs and cats,
- paying close attention to young children as their height increases the risk of bites to the face and head, do not allow them to play, pat or feed animals,
- not carrying food, or feeding and/or patting monkeys, especially those carrying their young, and
- avoiding contact with bats.
Travellers should also get specific advice from their doctor on preventative measures and what to do if they get bitten or scratched by an animal when travelling.
Other individuals may also be at greater risk of getting rabies. Please discuss your individual circumstances with your doctor.
If you are bitten or scratched by an animal while in a country where rabies is present, you should seek medical attention immediately.
Post-exposure treatment is required even if you have previously been vaccinated against rabies. All bites and scratches should be washed thoroughly with soap and water immediately. An antiseptic as advised by a doctor should be applied.
Rabies is treated with a combination of rabies vaccine and rabies immunoglobulin (antibodies against rabies). The doses of vaccine required depends on whether you have previously been immunised.
It is important to plan ahead and see your doctor at least 6 to 8 weeks before you travel to discuss immunisation and travel health.
Some side effects may be experienced following immunisation. Please discuss any side effects or concerns with your doctor.
- World Health Organization (WHO). Rabies Factsheet. Updated September 2017. Available at http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs099/en/ (accessed September 2018).
- Rabies. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/rabies/location/world/index.html (accessed September 2018)
AUS/VAC/0079/18 Date of Approval: November 2018