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What is rabies and how do you catch it?
Rabies is a viral disease transmitted to humans usually by a bite or scratch from an infected animal, or through bodily fluids such as saliva coming into contact with the eyes, nose, mouth or broken skin. It’s most often associated with dogs, but is also common in cats, cattle, monkeys, foxes and bats. While it can occur on all continents (apart from Antarctica), it is most commonly found in Africa, Asia, Central America and South America.
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Signs and symptoms
The virus attacks the nervous system, causing inflammation on the brain and spinal cord.
Symptoms usually appear after three to 12 weeks. They include:
• High temperature of 38°C or more
• Feeling anxious or unwell
• Difficulty swallowing or breathing
• Muscle spasms
• Frothing at the mouth
Once symptoms appear the disease is almost always fatal, but treatment before this happens is very effective.
It’s crucial to act quickly, apply first aid (see below) and then seek urgent local medical attention if a bite or scratch is sustained in any area with a risk of rabies, even if you’ve had a pre-travel rabies vaccination.
First aid measures include:
• Thoroughly washing off saliva with soap and water
• Irrigating the wound with iodine solution or alcohol – this is very effective in removing the virus from the bite, providing it’s prompt and thorough
• Application of a simple dressing but avoid closing the wound if possible
Further vaccinations may also then be required, but if you have had a full course of rabies vaccinations you will require fewer additional vaccinations if bitten. You should also consider a tetanus vaccination.
It’s important you’re aware of the risk and consider the following preventative tips:
• Don’t go near animals
• Don’t pick up animals, even if they appear to be tame or unwell
• Don’t attract strays with food or by being careless with litter
• Be aware of activities that may attract dogs, such as running and cycling
Pre-exposure rabies vaccinations are recommended for travellers, according to UK guidance. A full course consists of three vaccinations administered into the arm on day zero, day seven and day 21-28. When time is short, a rapid course consisting of three doses on day zero, day three and day seven is available. A fourth dose at 12 months is needed complete the course.
How long do rabies vaccinations last?
How long the rabies vaccination lasts depends on your exposure risk. A once-only booster can be considered a year after completing the primary course.
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