Everything You Need to Know About the Rabies Vaccine
A guide to the vaccines travelers may need to have.
The Rabies Virus
Rabies, which is derived from the Latin word 'to rage,' is a centuries-old disease that affects the central nervous system. And, despite exaggerated depictions, it can in fact lead to madness, and invariably death.
How Rabies Is Transmitted
Technically, rabies can be passed between any mammal species, but the focus tends to be on exposure through infected dogs, raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes, and other wildlife. A bite from any of these can lead to problems. And since rabies is transmitted through saliva or brain tissue, it's always a good idea to consult a doctor after any bite wound from an unknown animal — regardless of where you're traveling.
While it's very rare for humans to contract rabies nowadays, if untreated, acute infection can prove fatal in just seven days. Symptoms tend to start with mild fever and gastrointestinal pain, eventually leading to insomnia, nightmares, agitation, and excessive salivation (which explains the common image of a rabid individual foaming at the mouth).
Related: What You Need to Know About Vaccines
The Rabies Vaccine
Vaccine-wise, the rabies virus is strictly a concern for veterinarians, animal handlers, forest rangers, and those who work in close proximity with wild animals. The rest of us only need to worry about vaccination after an animal attack. In this case, you should visit a doctor, who will run a test to determine whether you actually have rabies. The results can be ready in just a few hours.
The vaccine, which was developed in 1885, is given on the arm, just like any other vaccine. If you've already been bitten, this vaccine will prevent you from getting rabies. Known as a Postexposure prophylaxis (PEP), it requires one dose of immune globulin and four shots over a 14-day period. (If you've been bitten, and have had the rabies vaccine before, it's only 2 doses.)
As a non-routine vaccine, rabies isn't typically covered by most insurance plans, though it's worth consulting your own insurance carrier to find out. A typical cost for the postexposure prophylaxis series of shots can be between $1,000 to $3,000, according to the CDC.
With that said, travelers expecting to encounter wildlife — particularly those who will be spending time hiking, climbing, and camping in the outdoors where animals such as coyotes, foxes, skunks, and raccoons are common — should be extremely cautious. Avoiding infection is much easier (and less expensive) than treatment for rabies.