In America, the thought of Rabies typically conjures images from the 1957 film Old Yeller (about a boy's ill-fated dog) or thoughts of sick wild animals in rural areas. But for today's traveler, such stereotypes can be dangerous. And what makes this unfortunate is that much of the danger associated with Rabies is preventable -- and treatable.
September 28, 2012 is World Rabies Day and there's no better time to share important facts that people -- especially international travelers -- should know about the disease and how to respond. For instance: You don't have to tangle with a yellow mongoose in the grasslands of Africa to contract it. Sometimes, the disease can be spread by something as simple as a lick on the hand from a friendly stray dog in Beijing. That's why if you're abroad -- and there is the slightest reason to believe an infection may be possible -- you should start investigating how to get help quickly or call a global medical assistance provider.
The Rabies virus exists in the animal populations of almost every country in the world. In fact, in 2010, an outbreak occurred among the raccoon population in New York City's Central Park. Globally, dogs remain the principal host, but the disease is also found in cats, monkeys, and bats. It affects a person's central nervous system and, if left untreated, is almost always fatal.
Rabies is typically transmitted by a bite, where the skin is broken, but that's not always the case. The disease is, in fact, highly contagious and anyone touching a rabid animal, with open cuts/sores, is potentially exposed.
What's important to know, however, is that the time between infection and the development of the first symptoms (called the "incubation period") is usually between two and 12 weeks--though it can sometimes be measured in years. Symptoms begin with a flu-like illness progressing to slight paralysis, followed by bizarre behavior ("madness") and ultimately death by respiratory failure. It's not something anyone wants to experience.
Around the world, approximately 50,000 people die each year from Rabies, with one-half in Asia and the other half in Africa. (It's most prevalent in India--which is likely the result of unenforced vaccination policies.) All that said, if treatment is begun within 10 days of exposure, positive outcomes are highly likely. So if you think you may have come in contact with a rabid animal, it can't be understated how important it is to wash the wound immensely, ideally with iodine or alcohol, and then to seek treatment from a doctor.
To sum up, if you're an international business traveler, expatriate, or maybe just a tourist, consider the following:
1. If you're visiting--or live in--a country where Rabies is a problem, consider getting a vaccination before you go or after you arrive.
2. Don't pet wild animals or strays on the street or even at the zoo.
3. Clean any wound, again, with iodine or alcohol (or soap and water) for 10 - 15 minutes immediately after exposure.
4. Contact a health care provider for advice on the need for treatment and local availability.
The purpose of World Rabies Day is to promote awareness of the disease and its prevention to business travelers and expatriates alike. As you go about your day--or your travels--please keep these tips in mind. They may come in handy if you encounter an infected dog--or, in the unlikely event, a yellow mongoose in the African grasslands. For more information, visit http://www.cdc.gov/rabies/.
--Robert Quigley, M.D., D.Phil., Regional Medical Director, International SOS
Dr. Robert Quigley is the Regional Medical Director, Americas Region, for International SOS. He is a noted expert on the Rabies virus and how it spreads.