Rabies is a potentially fatal virus that is transmitted to humans via a bite or scratch from an infected animal. Close to 40% of people bitten by a rabid animal are children under the age of 15. If someone who comes into contact with rabies doesn’t follow treatment quickly, the disease is nearly always fatal once symptoms begin. 1
Rabies occurs in more than 150 countries and territories, but some are higher risk than others. The most common regions for rabies related deaths are Asia and Africa. Children are at higher risk than adults because they are more likely to want to play with animals, and these animals may be infected with the disease. In Australia, there have been a handful of rare cases of a rabies-like virus from bats. Rabies incubates for somewhere between one and three months. Symptoms begin with fever and pain, plus a burning or prickling sensation near the wound.1,2
Rabies is spread from an infected animal to human, via bites or scratches. The virus spreads from the wound through the central nervous system which most often leads to death.1
The best way to prevent rabies is to avoid direct contact with dogs and other animals that could be rabid when travelling in areas where rabies may be present.
Australians travelling to an area where rabies is present are advised to visit their General Practitioner (GP) or travel medicine specialist six to eight weeks before travelling. They will help travellers assess the risk of exposure, access to healthcare overseas and potential availability of post-exposure treatments. Vaccination against rabies before travel simplifies management of potential exposure to the virus, particularly in regions where there is limited access to medical facilities.
If bitten or scratched by a bat in Australia or a by a wild mammal overseas, precautionary care must be taken. The wound should be thoroughly washed immediately with soap and water for at least fifteen minutes. Cleansing of the wound can help reduce the risk of potential infection. Once cleansed, antiseptic with antivirus action like povidone-iodine or iodine tincture should be applied. If this is not available, an aqueous iodine solution or alcohol (ethanol) should be used after washing. This procedure should be followed regardless of vaccination. 1
There is no official test for rabies; treatment must be administered as a precaution when an infected animal bites or scratches an unvaccinated person. If someone unvaccinated is bitten or scratched by an animal that may be rabid, post-exposure preventative treatment must be administered quickly. The wound should be thoroughly washed with soap or detergent and water for a minimum of 15 minutes to kill bacteria locally. The person must be immunised as soon as possible, with a course of rabies vaccines and when prescribed, rabies immunoglobulin. Vaccinated people who may have been bitten by a rabid animal still need post-exposure preventative treatment, although it is less complicated.1
If an individual comes into direct contact with an animal that may be rabid, it is recommended medical advice is sought immediately. For more information related to rabies prevention speak to your healthcare professional.