Rabies 

Introduction 

Rabies is caused by a group of viruses called lyssaviruses 

Rabies in the UK

Almost all cases of rabies in the UK have resulted from an infection occurring abroad.

However, there have been some recorded cases of a rabies-like virus affecting UK bats. In 2002, an unvaccinated bat handler in Scotland died from the infection.

It is rare for bat rabies viruses to infect other animals and the risk of human infection is thought to be low. Nevertheless, if you find an injured bat or a bat that needs to be moved, do not touch it. Call the Bat Conservation Trust helpline on 0845 1300 228 for advice.

Rabies is a very serious viral infection that targets the brain and nervous system. You can catch rabies if you are bitten by an infected animal and haven't been vaccinated.

It is almost always fatal unless treated very early.

Rabies is a zoonotic infection, which means it is passed to humans by animals. Almost all cases occur abroad. 

You can become infected if the animal's saliva enters your body after it bites you, or after it scratches you when it has licked its paws or claws.

Less commonly, you can become infected if you have a cut or graze that the animal licks.

Most mammals can carry the rabies virus, but the majority of cases result from a dog bite.

In theory, rabies can spread between humans, but the only confirmed human-to-human cases have resulted from organ transplants.

Read more about the causes of rabies.

What are the symptoms?

It can take a while for symptoms to develop, but when they do the condition is almost always fatal.

Symptoms in humans can include:

  • tingling and itchiness at the site of infection
  • high temperature (fever)
  • an irrational fear of water (hydrophobia)
  • aggressive behaviour

An animal with rabies may also have some of these symptoms, although some symptoms – such as hydrophobia – only occur in humans.

Read more about the symptoms of rabies.

When to seek medical help

If you are travelling in, or have recently visited, an area of the world with a high rate of rabies and you are worried you or your child may have been infected, you should seek medical help immediately.

If you know you've been bitten, you should:

  • wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water under a running tap
  • use antiseptic or alcohol to clean the wound
  • leave the wound open
  • go to the nearest hospital or medical centre and explain you have been bitten

Rabies is almost non-existent in the UK, but you should seek immediate medical help if you are bitten by a bat.

Treating rabies

If there is a high risk that you have rabies in its early stages (before you have any symptoms), you will be given a course of treatment known as post-exposure prophylaxis.

This usually involves cleaning the site of contamination and administering a course of the rabies vaccine in an attempt to prevent the infection spreading to the brain and nervous system. In most cases, post-exposure prophylaxis is effective.

If rabies has reached a stage where it has caused symptoms, it is almost always fatal. In these cases, treatment will usually focus on making you as comfortable as possible.

Read more about diagnosing rabies and treating rabies.

Vaccination

A number of vaccines can be used to prevent a rabies infection developing.

Routine vaccination is usually only recommended if you regularly work with potentially infected animals or are travelling to a part of the world known to have high levels of rabies and limited medical care.

Most people going on a standard holiday (as opposed to trekking or living and working in rural areas) will not need a rabies vaccine.

Read more about the rabies vaccination.

Avoiding rabies

When travelling in countries that are not rabies-free, do not touch unknown animals and educate your children about the dangers of petting unknown animals. Examine your children regularly for cuts and scratches following contact with any animal and ask how they got them. Make sure they know that being bitten by an animal is dangerous and they need to tell you about it.

Quarantine and the pet travel scheme (PETS)

To keep countries rabies-free, it is important there are strict public health measures to control stray animals, such as foxes. The movement of potentially infected animals across borders into uninfected regions is controlled by strictly enforcing quarantine regulations. Animals that do not have a licence should not be brought into the UK.

The pet travel scheme (PETS) is a system that allows pet dogs, cats and ferrets from certain countries to enter the UK without going into quarantine, as long as they have been vaccinated. It also means people in the UK can take their dogs, cats and ferrets to other European Union (EU) countries and return with them to the UK.

More information about the pet travel scheme can be found on the Gov.uk website.

How common is rabies?

There are an estimated 55,000 deaths from rabies each year worldwide. Most cases occur in the developing world, particularly in Africa and Asia.

As a result of strict UK quarantine laws when transporting animals, and the recent Pet Travel Scheme (PETS), the UK has been rabies-free since the beginning of the 20th century, with the exception of a rabies-like virus in a single species of bat.

The last recorded case of rabies in the UK was in May 2012. The patient, who died, contracted the disease after being bitten by a dog in India.

Page last reviewed: 06/12/2012

Next review due: 06/12/2014

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