Rabies - Should you pat that monkey

Rabies – Should you pat that monkey?

Most people wouldn’t approach a wild animal in their local park but it’s often another story when overseas.

Whether it’s cocktail courage or those relaxing holiday vibes, people love petting wild animals abroad.

However, there is a downside to this activity and it can be more dangerous than you realise.

So, what is rabies and how does it affect the human body?

Rabies is mostly contracted through saliva from animal bites but can also be contracted from scratches or any contact which breaks the skin.  The animal inflicting the attack must be infected with rabies in order to pass it on.

This zoonotic disease (passed from animal to human) causes swelling of the brain and, if left untreated, is deadly to humans.  Once the virus travels up the central nervous system, it reaches the brain which is when symptoms start to present themselves. Once this happens, it is usually too late for treatment to be effective.

Symptoms of Rabies infection include:

  • muscle pain/discomfort/spasms or paralysis in weak muscles
  • dizziness/fatigue, fever, loss of appetite
  • hallucinations or delirium
  • nausea and/or vomiting
  • behavioural issues such as aggression or irritability.

Some other more extreme (yet still common) symptoms are:

  • brain death
  • coma
  • seizures

Many animals carry this virus.  However, some of the most common are dogs, raccoons, bats, coyotes, foxes, monkeys and skunks.  Rabid dogs contribute to the majority of human cases with around 99% of cases being attributable to wild dog attacks.  However, some cases show domesticated animals also pass this disease on to their owners.

What can I do to prevent Rabies exposure?

Firstly, don’t approach wild animals.

If visiting animals in a sanctioned enclosure, such as a zoo, the animals are looked after and vaccinated so, they are very unlikely to have any serious diseases.  However, this is not the case for all and if it does not look safe, don’t do it.   In poverty stricken countries, locals sometimes need to do whatever they have to to put food on the table, regardless of the potential danger to you.  Check with the provider to see if the animals have been vaccinated, visit vets often and look at the condition of the animals as well.  If they are showing any of the above symptoms or are generally not well kept, don’t approach them for a pet, a ride or anything else.

Get the family vaccinated.  Rabies is everywhere (except the Antarctic).  So whenever you travel, you should get vaccinated.  The majority of human deaths from this disease (roughly 95%) occur throughout Asia and Africa.  Make sure you are aware of what vaccinations are required for the destinations you are visiting.

If travelling with kids, make them aware of the danger of wild animals and try to educate them on what to look out for.  Otherwise, if they are very young, keep them nearby at all times and don’t let them chase or try to play with any animals.

What do I do if I get bitten?

Immediately wash the wound out thoroughly with soapy water and apply iodine or alcohol directly after this.  This could help prevent the infection from spreading.  After this, visit the local hospital and advise them of what has happened.

Rabies can be prevented if caught early enough so don’t delay – get to a doctor!  Rabies can lay dormant for 1-3 months on average so, just because you don’t show symptoms right away does not mean you are not infected.

If you are exposed to rabies, PEP is very effective if administered properly and in a short time frame – 100% effective if administered straight away.

PEP stands for post-exposure prophylaxis (or post-exposure prevention) and is used to prevent the infection from occurring.

Is it covered?

Well, most probably but some insurers may consider whether you have exposed yourself to needless danger and decline your claim due to this.

All travel insurance policies advise in their own words that it is your responsibility to safeguard yourself and your belongings.

It is also worth noting that most insurance wordings also have a general exclusion relating to failure of the insured person to obtain appropriate vaccinations and/or follow government travel advice.   Be sure to log on to www.smartraveller.gov.au and check the Health section of the current government advice for your destination.

It is your responsibility to ensure you and your family obtain recommended vaccinations prior to departing on your holiday.  Other than not being covered, if the vaccination is mandatory, you could be denied entry to the country you plan to visit if you cannot prove you have had these vaccinations.

Assuming your claim is accepted, your policy should respond to the cost of medical treatment obtained overseas to treat your injury and administer post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).

It really is in your best interests to consult a doctor as soon as you come into contact with potential infection.  Don’t delay – your life could depend on it.