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Disease

Rabies

Page last updated on 22 June 2020

Australia is free of rabies, as the virus does not occur in land-dwelling Australian animals.1,2 Australia does, however, have other similar viruses, which are found in bats.

Rabies, which is a viral infection, is spread by the bite of an infected animal, domestic or wild, e.g. dog, fox, or bat. It is commonly found across many regions of the globe, including Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Travellers are encouraged to talk to their healthcare professional to determine if vaccination is advised, at least 4 weeks before they leave.

The rabies infection is almost always fatal once symptoms have begun. However, if a person has been bitten by a suspect animal, effective post-bite treatment can be given, which can reduce the probability of the infection taking hold.
 

Key disease information

What is rabies?

Rabies is an infection caused by a virus of the Lyssavirus family.

It infects the central nervous system and is almost always fatal. The early infection starts with flu-like symptoms, and rapidly progress to altered behaviours, coma, and death. Rabies is not found in Australia, however, it is still present in many areas of the world. In Australia, there have been a few reported cases of a rabies-like virus contracted from bats.

How do you contract the rabies virus?

Rabies is spread by the bite or scratch of an animal, domestic or wild, e.g. dog, fox, monkey or bat.  Although people theoretically could spread the virus to one another via a bite, this has never been accurately reported.

Children are particularly at risk, because they are more likely to want to play with animals, and these animals may be infected with the disease. Because of their height, children are more vulnerable to high-risk bites to the face, head and neck. 

 

Is rabies contagious?

No. There have been no confirmed recorded cases of rabies transmission by a bite between people. 

However, there have been a very small number of cases of rabies transmission through organ transplantation, e.g. corneas or internal organs. 

What are the symptoms of rabies?

Rabies begins with an early phase of flu-like symptoms, eg cough, fever, and headache.

The majority of people who contract rabies develop the so-called “furious” form of the disease and will present with altered behaviour, including increased anxiety and hyperactivity, aerophobia (fear of drafts of air), hydrophobia (fear of water), and pain or tingling at the wound site. The person will deteriorate rapidly over a short period of up to 12 days, resulting in paralysis, coma and death. 

“Paralytic” rabies occurs in the minority of cases and progresses more slowly, as muscles become paralysed, resulting in coma and death. 
 

Is rabies just an animal disease?

No. Rabies can infect any mammal, including humans, dogs, foxes, raccoons, and bats. 

What countries are affected by rabies?

Rabies is common throughout many countries, including Central and South America, Africa, Asia, Indonesia, and North Eastern Europe.

Travellers to countries which have a high-risk of rabies should take the following precautions:

  • avoid close contact with wild and domestic animals, this is especially important for children
  • do not carry food around, or feed/play with monkeys or other animals
  • talk to your doctor about vaccination for rabies.
     
Do I need a rabies vaccination?

The best way to avoid rabies is to avoid direct contact with dogs and other animals that could be rabid. The rabies vaccination is not part of the Australian government immunisation program.

However, if you are planning on travelling overseas to a country where the risk of catching rabies is high including Central and South America, Africa, Asia, Indonesia, and North Eastern Europe, you should visit your GP or travel health specialist at least 4 weeks prior to travelling. They will assess the risk of exposure, access to healthcare resources overseas and potential access to post-bite treatments. 

Vaccination against rabies before travel simplifies the management if you are exposed to rabies. 

If you require rabies vaccine prior to travelling, a total of three vaccines will be required before departure.
 

What do I do if I’m bitten by a suspect animal?

If you are bitten or scratched by an animal that may be rabid, post-bite treatment must be administered immediately. This is regardless of whether you have been vaccinated for not. 

 

  • Wash the wound thoroughly with soap or detergent and water for a minimum of 5 minutes 
  • Apply an antiseptic with antiviral action after washing
  • Contact your doctor as soon as possible, an additional vaccine will need to be administered. The number and type of vaccine administered will be different, depending on whether you were have received your pre-exposure vaccination

For further information on rabies prevention, speak to your healthcare professional.
 

VaccineHub offers general information only. Please see a healthcare professional for medical advice

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Sources & Citations

  1. NSW Government, Department of Health, Rabies and Australian bat lyssavirus infection fact sheet. Available at: https://www.health.nsw.gov.au/Infectious/factsheets/Factsheets/rabies.pdf (accessed 17 March 2020).
  2. Queensland Government, Business Queensland. Rabies. Available at: https://www.business.qld.gov.au/industries/farms-fishing-forestry/agriculture/livestock/animal-welfare/pests-diseases-disorders/rabies (accessed 17 March 2020).
  3. Australian Government, Department of Health. The Australian Immunisation Handbook. Rabies and other lyssaviruses. Available at: https://immunisationhandbook.health.gov.au/vaccine-preventable-diseases/rabies-and-other-lyssaviruses (accessed 10 March 2020).
  4. World Health Organisation. Rabies. Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/rabies (accessed 17 March 2020).
  5. World Health Organisation. Frequently asked questions about rabies for the General Public. Available at:https://www.who.int/rabies/Rabies_General_Public_FAQs_21Sep2018.pdf?ua=1 (accessed 17 March 2020).
  6. World Health Organisation. Rabies Symptoms. Available at: https://www.who.int/rabies/about/home_symptoms/en/ (accessed 17 March 2020).
  7. World Health Organisation. Distribution of risk levels for humans contacting rabies, worldwide, 2013. Available at:  https://www.who.int/rabies/Global_distribution_risk_humans_contracting_rabies_2013.png?ua=1 (accessed 17 March 2020).
  8. healthdirect Australia. Rabies. Available at: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/rabies (accessed 17 March 2020). 
  9. Australian Government, Department of Health. National Immunisation Program Schedule. Available at: https://www.health.gov.au/health-topics/immunisation/immunisation-throughout-life/national-immunisation-program-schedule#national-immunisation-program-schedule-from-1-april-2019 (accessed 17 March 2020). 

SPANZ.RABIE.18.04.0156(1) - Date of preparation March 2020

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