Rabies In Africa

Rabies in Africa (and elsewhere in the world) is a virus infection of mammals that can be transmitted to humans in the saliva of infected animals in a variety of ways but most commonly by bites, licks or scratches.

All mammals can get rabies. People usually get rabies from licks, bites, or scratches from infected dogs or other animals such as bats, foxes, raccoons and mongooses.

Rabies Facts

  • Rabies is an acute viral infection of mammals, which affects the central nervous system. Rabies in humans may occur when skin is penetrated by a bite or scratch from a rabid animal (domestic or wild) or a pre-existing wound is contaminated with saliva from a rabid animal, by licking.
  • Rabies is endemic in most areas of the world and Africa is a high risk destination.
  • After the rabies virus enters the body it may either be killed by antiseptics used to clean the wound or by the person's own immune defence mechanisms.
  • If the above doesn't happen within a few days of the bite, the virus will spread to the nerve endings in the muscles and those leading to the brain and spinal cord.
  • Severe infection of the central nervous system ensues which is invariably fatal.

Rabies Symptoms

  • There may be a long incubation period of usually 2-3 months between the time of the bite and first symptoms.
  • First symptoms of rabies is itching, irritation, tingling or pain at the healed bite site.
  • As the disease advances, there will be headaches, fever, paralysis, episodes of confusion, aggression and hydrophobia. Attempts to drink water causes the neck, swallowing and respiration muscles to contract.

Treatment Of Mammal Bites And Scratches

First aid measures:
  • Scrub with soap or detergent.
  • Remove any foreign material like dirt or broken teeth.
  • Rinse with water.
  • Irrigate the wound with Providone iodine.
Hospital measures:
  • Further exploration of the wound and irrigation, possibly under local or general anaesthetic.
  • Avoid suturing or occlusive dressings.
  • Treat tetanus risk with booster, if appropriate.
  • Prophylactic antibiotics, if appropriate.
  • Post-exposure rabies vaccination.

Summary For African Travellers and Hunters

  • As hunters in Africa may possibly come into contact with rabies-affected wild animals, pre-exposure immunization should be considered.
  • Vaccination prior to travel is often regarded unnecessary for those less than 24 hours away from a vaccine supply. However, vaccination might be advisable for those travelling to areas where supplies of rabies immunoglobulin are currently known to be low even if they are less than 24 hours from medical attention.
  • Hunters should avoid close contact with domestic animals that are unknown to them. Your outfitter's pet dog ought to be safe - in South Africa most responsible owners get their pet animals vaccinated against rabies.
  • Rabies occasionally breaks out in a wild animal population on game ranches. You'll be well-advised not to touch your trophy animal's blood or mouth, especially if you have small uncovered wounds like thorn scratches.
  • Definitely keep clear of any obviously rabid animals - they may be extra aggressive and vicious in the first stages of disease, becoming lethargic, unsteady and weak as paralysis occurs. Rabid wild animals may sometimes also appear tame due to behavioural changes caused by the rabies virus.
  • All mammal bites should be treated seriously - cleaned immediately and very vigorously. Antibiotics and a tetanus booster may be necessary.

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Page Updated: Mar 2024

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