Do I Need the Rabies Vaccine Before My Trip?

Key Takeaways:
  • Rabies is serious, often fatal disease that is prevalent in much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
  • Rabies is vaccine-preventable.
  • If you are traveling to rural areas of the developing world, the pre-exposure vaccine may be a crucial part of your travel planning.

You’ve planned your exotic trip abroad, and you know that a variety of pre-travel vaccinations may be necessary to keep you healthy and well during your travels.  Depending on your destination and itinerary, the Rabies Vaccine may be a crucial part of your pre-travel health regimen; this widespread disease can have serious, or even fatal, consequences.  Although rabies is preventable with a vaccination, over 55,000 people die each year from the disease, primarily in Africa and Asia where prevention and treatment are not widely available.  Be sure to take adequate precautions by visiting a Travel Health Specialist for individualized recommendations, but read on for disease and vaccine information and prevention strategies.

The Facts About Rabies

Rabies is a virus that is classified as a zoonotic disease. This means that the virus can be transferred from animals to humans. The virus is located in the saliva of infected animals and is typically transferred through a bite or scratch. Most humans who contract rabies are infected by a dog, but bats, skunks, foxes, raccoons, jackals, and other wild animals are also carriers of the disease.

It’s very important to receive treatment when bitten or scratched by an animal. Sometimes, rabies symptoms don’t show up for months, but, once they do, the disease is often fatal. Early symptoms of the disease may include a headache, fever, and weakness.  As the virus progresses, more serious symptoms develop. These symptoms can include anxiety, restlessness, trouble sleeping, confusion, hallucinations, difficulty swallowing, drooling, and agitation.

Preventing Rabies

Both pets and humans can be vaccinated against rabies. Pets can get their vaccinations from a veterinarian, and this method is a very cost-effective means of reducing disease transference. Unfortunately, however, pet vaccinations are typically not prevalent in the rural areas of many developing countries.  Therefore, if your travel plans include stops in rural villages, the pre-exposure vaccine may be a crucial one for you.

The rabies pre-exposure vaccine is available at all Passport Health travel clinics.  Note that even if you’re not traveling, this vaccine could be recommended for you if your job requires that you come into regular contact with animals, so animal handlers and veterinarians should be up-to-date on this vaccination.  The vaccine is  recommended for those who plan to travel in parts of the world where rabies is still prevalent, such as Asia, Africa, and many parts of Latin America. Travelers who will be spending a lot of time outdoors hiking, camping, and exploring should also be vaccinated.

The human rabies vaccine is given in three doses. The second dosage is administered seven days after the first dosage, and the third is given 21 or 28 days after the first. For those who are continually exposed to animals or the rabies virus, it’s recommended that they be tested occasionally for immunity to the disease and that a booster be given when it is needed.

Travelers to countries where rabies poses a health risk should take care to avoid infected animals.  Avoid any animal that is acting strangely, including domesticated pets. Outdoor travelers should take care to avoid wild animals.

Treatment for Rabies

In the event of an animal bite or scratch, immediate treatment is necessary to mitigate the possibility of disease onset. The wound needs to be thoroughly cleaned, and if a pre-exposure vaccine has never been received, then a post-exposure prophylaxis needs to be administered. The recommended first-aid procedure to clean the wound includes washing and flushing it for 15 minutes with water and soap, iodine, or any other substance that can kill the virus.

In summary, remember that rabies is a very serious disease carried by millions of animals all over the world. If the disease is spread to a human, it is usually fatal unless that person gets treatment. The risk of rabies would be greatly reduced if more pets received a rabies immunization, but such vaccines are largely unavailable or are viewed as too expensive in many developing countries.  Therefore, if your travels take you through the developing world, be sure to consider the rabies vaccination.

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