Rabies in the UK – what it means for your travel health

The first case of rabies in the UK for 10 years has just been diagnosed. We are lucky to live in a country where rabies is virtually unknown (the patient in this case caught rabies from an infected dog in India), but we can still learn some potentially life-saving lessons.

Firstly, while we may live in a ‘global village’ in which an exotic holiday is only a click of an internet button away, the whole world is not as safe as ours from infectious diseases. If you’re planning to travel to any country outside Western Europe, North America, Australia or New Zealand, it’s essential to see your practice nurse to make sure your travel immunisations are up to date. Many vaccinations take up to eight weeks to take effect, so last-minute bookings can be a health gamble.

Secondly, you can never assume you’re immune to infectious diseases just because you were born in a region. Many British citizens born in Asia or Africa, for instance, assume they don’t need to take malaria tablets. In fact, their risk is as high as anyone else’s.

Thirdly, some infectious diseases can take weeks or even months to cause symptoms. If you become unwell up to a year after travel to a malarious area, you must tell your doctor about your travel history, to reduce the risk of missing the diagnosis.

The media headlines have focused on the fact that ‘docs missed rabies symptoms three times’. Should we worry that our nation’s doctors are incompetent? Of course not. The early symptoms of rabies are fever, tiredness, being off your food and perhaps feeling sick. Every GP sees patients several times a day with mild viral infections causing these symptoms. With only one case of rabies in the UK in the last 100 years, it’s a safe bet that none of them had ever seen a case, or could reasonably have expected to in their professional lifetime.

What this does remind us of is the importance of contacting your doctor again if your symptoms worsen. Many serious illnesses have identical symptoms to mild, self-limiting diseases in the early stages. The only way to sort out one from the other is to see what happens next. Doctors can’t admit everyone with a nasty cold to hospital just in case their symptoms turn out to be due to rabies, but they can certainly reassess the situation if the patient takes a turn for the worse.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.