While rare in Canada, rabies can occur. By knowing the risks and taking precautions, you can protect yourself when travelling domestically or abroad.
Rabies is a viral infection of the central nervous system caused by a lyssavirus. It’s usually transmitted to humans through a bite or from a scratch of an infected mammal. Worldwide, dogs are the main source of human rabies. In Canada, the animals that are most often infected with rabies are bats, skunks, raccoons, foxes, and stray dogs and cats.
Early symptoms are similar to those of the flu, and include headache, general malaise, fever, and fatigue. There may also be pain or discomfort at the exposure site, such as numbness or tingling. Once symptoms appear, the disease progresses quickly, attacking the central nervous system, and is almost always fatal. Rabies is estimated to cause 59,000 human deaths annually in over 150 countries.
In Canada, rabies is present however the risk is low thanks to excellent prevention and control programs. Since reporting began in 1924, there have been only 25 fatalities in Canada. Those most at risk are people whose personal activities or occupations put them in close contact with animals — such as hunters, hikers, wildlife officers, laboratory workers, veterinarians, and farm workers.
Be aware of the rabies risk domestically
Rabies is especially something to be aware of as we plan our summer vacations. With COVID-19 restrictions, many Canadians will be staying close to home or travelling locally and possibly changing their usual summer activities. “People who may have previously stayed at hotels or resorts and are now moving to more off-road activities should be aware of the risks for rabies domestically,” says Pavithra Ravinatarajan, a registered pharmacist based in Kitchener, ON. Activities out in nature that put you in closer potential contact with wild animals — such as cave exploration (spelunking), hunting, camping, and hiking — increase the risk. If you anticipate visiting remote areas to participate in such recreational activities this summer, you’re likely to encounter wild animals. You may want to consider speaking to a health care professional about getting vaccinated against rabies.
Steps to take if you are bitten by an unknown or infected animal
Thoroughly wash the wound with soap and water and seek medical advice without delay. Any animal that has bitten a human or is suspected of being rabid should be reported to your healthcare professional or your local public health unit.
The assessment of whether you need post-exposure rabies treatment will be performed by a health care professional or your local public health officials. Post-exposure rabies treatment in the form of vaccines is available and effective, but it must be administered as soon as possible, if required. In addition to being 100 percent effective, the vaccine is also generally well-tolerated, says Ravinatarajan.
Be educated and prepared as you plan your post-pandemic travel abroad
While international travel is temporarily restricted, many of us are making wish lists of places we’d like to visit when the pandemic is over. This is an ideal time to start thinking in advance about your rabies risk and whether you should have a pre-exposure rabies vaccine.
The risk to travellers depends on which country (or countries) you’ll be visiting, the itinerary, the purpose and duration of the trip, what you plan to do there, as well as access to medical care. Travellers to rabies-endemic areas where there’s poor access to medical care, as well as frequent and long-term travellers to high-risk areas, should seriously consider receiving a pre-travel rabies vaccine. Your risk is higher if you participate in activities in rural areas that put you in close contact with animals, such as joining a safari or trekking through a forest or jungle. But some urban areas are risky as well, particularly ones with large populations of stray dogs and cats and other animals that could potentially be infected with rabies.
“Rabies vaccination is definitely something travellers should keep top of mind when travelling to certain areas where the risk is high,” says Ravinatarajan. “I always tell people to view their health care practitioner as their best resource and to consult with them in advance of their trip, whether that be their family doctor, a pharmacist, or a travel clinic.”
Canadians welcome the day when they can travel freely again. When that happens, it’s important that we know about and protect ourselves against the risks of rabies and other travel-related diseases. “Being aware doesn’t mean you have to be scared,” says Ravinatarajan. “It’s always better to be prepared and have a good vacation than not be prepared and have to struggle through challenges once you’re there, especially in a different country.”
By taking time now to educate and prepare yourself in advance, you’ll be able to enjoy your trip — whether local or abroad — with one less thing to worry about.
What is Rabies?
Rabies is a deadly disease that can be passed on to humans by the saliva of an infected animal through bites, licks on scratches or broken skin, or licks on mucous membranes, for example the eyes or mouth.
Rabies in Canada
In Canada, the animals that are most often infected with rabies are bats, skunks, raccoons, and foxes.
Am I at Risk?
You’re at risk if you’re in contact with
potentially rabid animals:
● laboratory workers
● animal control workers
● animal handlers
● wildlife workers
● cave explorers (spelunkers)
● hunters or trappers in areas with confirmed rabies
● any person whose activities bring them into frequent contact with the rabies virus or rabid bats, raccoons, skunks, cats, or dogs, and/or
a child who may not understand the need to stay away from animals or to report any bite.
Assess Your Risk
It’s strongly recommended that your travel plans, whether local or international, include contacting a travel clinic, your pharmacist, or a physician at least six weeks before departure. They can determine your need for immunizations and/or preventative medication and advise you on precautions to avoid disease.
What to Do if You’re Bitten
Wash the infected area well with soap and water immediately. Cover the bite with a clean bandage. Contact your health care provider or local public health unit right away and go to the nearest emergency clinic/hospital.