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.
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. Rabies is uncommon in Australia however the virus may be present in bats.
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 are bitten or scratched by an animal while in a country where rabies is present, you should seek medical attention immediately.
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 a healthcare professional regarding your individual circumstances.
For travellers visiting countries where the risk of contracting rabies is high, the likelihood of coming into contact with animals should be taken into account, as well as the level of access to emergency care and treatment.
Travellers should get specific advice from their doctor on preventative measures and what to do if they get bitten or scratched by an animal when travelling.
It is recommended that travellers to countries where there is the risk of rabies should avoid close contact with domestic and wild animals. Some measures to help 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.
If you are bitten or scratched by an animal while in a country where rabies is present, treatment is required even if you have previously been immunised against rabies. You should seek medical attention immediately.
All bites and scratches should immediately be washed thoroughly with soap and water. 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).
It is important to plan ahead and see your doctor at least 6 to 8 weeks before you travel to discuss prevention options and travel health.
- World Health Organization (WHO). Rabies Factsheet. Updated September 2017. Available at http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs099/en/ (accessed October 2020).
- Rabies. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/rabies/location/world/index.html (accessed October 2020)
PM-AU-AVX-WCNT-190045 Date of GSK Approval: January 2021