To mark World Rabies Day (September 28) the PHA is urging people travelling overseas to be aware of the risk of catching the almost always fatal infection.
The aim of World Rabies Day is to raise awareness about the impact of human and animal rabies, how easy it is to prevent, and how to eliminate the main global sources. Rabies in humans is 100% preventable, yet more than 55,000 people – mostly in Africa and Asia die from rabies every year.
With holiday makers and students travelling to increasingly more exotic locations, rabies can pose a real threat. It is therefore important before going abroad to seek medical advice on whether you need vaccinated against this serious disease.
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 two to eight 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 saliva, 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 also be spread by other mammals, including cats and monkeys. You cannot tell if an animal has the disease as they may appear well.
“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 two to five 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 the risk of developing the disease,” added Dr Devine.