Tragically, the British woman recently bitten by a dog in India died at the weekend, in hospital. Having been through a course of post-exposure vaccines with my, then 6 year old, daughter last year, I have strong views on the UK’s handling of returning travellers who may have been infected with this potentially fatal disease.
Last year, I was in the position of having unlabelled rabies vaccines in my fridge and having to beg various doctors in the town to give my daughter the injection on the *correct day in the complicated post-exposure timetable. At least one doctor refused. My GP was no help, because the day fell on a Sunday. So much for the Hippocratic Oath.
If you are travelling abroad to an area that has rabies, get yourself informed. You will have to take steps if you are scratched or bitten by a warm-blooded mammal. Don’t rely on anyone else and don’t take any chances, it’s not worth it. Once symptoms develop, as in this grandmother’s tragic case, it’s too late – the vaccine won’t work, death is inevitable.
Personally, I think a new education campaign is well overdue – I still remember the skull posters plastered all over the cross-channel ferries in the 1970s. They may have been a blunt instrument – I thought I would die of fright when a dog came near me – but it gave me a healthy respect for animals abroad. It seems to me that airlines flying to areas that have rabies (many, many places) should inform you, your travel insurance should inform you, your travel agent should tell you (but they won’t because it won’t fit well alongside the glossy brochure description). Being told something ten times too many and being aware of the risks is better than travelling in ignorance.
It is worth remembering that, worldwide, children are the most frequent victims of rabies death, probably because they don’t always report an incident with an animal. My child, thank goodness, mentioned she had been scratched by a cat about three hours after the fact. If this happens to you, or your family, wash the wound immediately and go to a doctor. Don’t panic, because post-exposure vaccines are fully effective. Please though, don’t ignore it. It’s not a chance worth taking.
*The UK Health Protection Agency’s vaccination schedule does not count the days in the same way as other countries. It might be as well to get the regime clear in your head before you go, just in case. Otherwise, you will be like me, and be trying to make sense of the anomaly where some countries count the day of exposure as day 1 and others count it as day 0 – which has a knock on effect for the whole course of injections thereafter.