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What Is Rabies And Should I Get The Rabies Vaccination?


March 26th, 2014Travel, Gap Year
By Jane Bell from Sussex Travel Clinic


This is a guest post by registered nurse Jane Bell from Sussex Travel Clinic

What is Rabies?

Rabies is a virus transmitted through the salvia of infected animals. It can be spread to humans if an infected animal bites or scratches the skin, or licks an open cut. Once symptoms have manifested, rabies is nearly always fatal.

Rabies occurs in all continents with the exception of Antarctica. In Asia, the virus is common among stray and domestic dogs, whilst in Central and South America it is more common in vampire bats.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that rabies is responsible for between 40,000 and 70,000 human deaths each year worldwide. The majority of these deaths occur in the developing world, in areas such as South East Asia and Africa.

Every year more than 15 million people worldwide seek treatment following rabies exposure. Up to 900 UK travellers a year seek rabies post-exposure treatment upon returning to the UK.

Rabies Map

Image courtesy of World Health Organisation

Rabies vaccine recommendations

The following recommendations will help you decide if you should have rabies jabs before you travel.

  • If you are travelling to a country where rabies is present and you will be more than 24 hours away from medical facilities and a reliable source of vaccine, then you should get the rabies pre-exposure vaccines.

You may also want to consider getting vaccinated if the following situations apply to you.

  • If you are staying for 4 weeks or more in a remote, rural area of a rabies endemic country then you should consider getting the pre-exposure vaccine.
  • If you are planning to ride a bike regularly on your trip or are doing a long distance cycle consider getting vaccinated before you travel (dogs chase bikes!).
  • Those who are working with animals, including bats.
  • If you are going to live permanently in a rabies endemic country.

If you were to be exposed to rabies and have not had the pre-exposure vaccines, then you would require a treatment called Rabies Immunoglobulin (RIG). This is a blood product and is costly to produce. For this reason it is in short supply or not available in some countries. It is far better to have pre-exposure rabies vaccines as this eliminates the need for RIG.

Should I get a rabies vaccine for travel?

This is one of the most common questions we get asked in the travel clinic and the simple answer in our opinion is yes - if you are travelling to a risk area you should consider getting pre-exposure rabies shots.

There are a lot of myths surrounding rabies vaccination. I’ve listed some of the common ones below:

Rabies jabs are painful and given in the stomach.
Not true – rabies vaccines are given in the arm and are no more painful than any other jab.

Having the rabies vaccine before you travel just gives you more time to get to hospital if you are bitten.
This is true. However, as well as giving you time, receiving the pre-exposure vaccine also ensures that the follow up shots will work straight away, as your immune system has already started to produce antibodies to rabies.

I won’t go near dogs on my trip and so I won’t get bitten.
It is a good idea not to go near dogs or animals in countries where rabies is present. However, in most circumstances exposure to rabies is a result of an unprovoked attack.

If I get bitten I will just go to hospital.
True - if you get bitten you should go straight to hospital. However, in many countries rabies treatment and vaccines are in short supply. In some countries there have even been counterfeit rabies vaccines administered.

How is the rabies vaccine given?

You need to have 3 doses of rabies vaccine given on day 0, 7 and day 21 or 28. Once you have had a course of pre-exposure rabies vaccine it will last for 10 years. You only need 2 boosters if you get bitten to keep the antibodies at a protective level.

‘Rabies - A traveller’s tale’ by Jan Wolsey.

“I wasn't sure about getting a rabies jab before I went to India - I mean what are the chances of getting bitten by a dog! I spoke to the nurse at the travel clinic and they immediately said yes, it’s really important. So I put my sensible hat on and had the 3 pre-exposure shots. It didn't hurt and I only felt a little tired in the evening after. A month later I was walking back to my guest house in Kerala and there was a little excited dog jumping up to say hello. I forgot where I was and gently put my hand out to calm it down. In its excitement to say hello it snagged my hand with its teeth and drew a small amount of blood.”

Read the full story here.

For further advice or to get rabies vaccines please visit

Projects Abroad recommends that all volunteers speak to their GP or Travel Clinic before travelling overseas to find out the latest vaccination advice for the countries you’re travelling to.

Have you got any more questions about the rabies vaccination? Did you decide to get vaccinated for your last trip and what factors played a part in that decision? Please leave your comments below.

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