Why you need a Rabies Shot Before Traveling to Southeast Asia

Dogs on a leash

I have lived in Asia for many years (Thailand, Vietnam, China, and Hong Kong). I have traveled throughout most of Asia one time or another; it can be common for some dogs to be wandering the streets. Many of these same dogs could come up and bite you and infect you with rabies.

Travelers to Asia and especially Southeast Asia should be sure to get or ensure their rabies shots are up-to-date before they travel anywhere in southeast Asia. The reason is that rabies is still a common problem in many of these areas and if you are traveling out in the countryside, getting a shot may be difficult or almost impossible to obtain.

There are many reasons why a rabies shot is important; here are some of the reasons:

Rabies – A preventable – yet fatal disease

Rabies is a preventable disease; if your vaccinations are up-to-date and you get bitten by a rabies-infected animal (mainly dogs), you will not die because your vaccination is up-to-date. But if you do not have your shots up-to-date and get bitten and allow rabies to develop, you will die. Rabies is 100% fatal but also a 100% preventional disease. This is why you need to make sure that all your rabies vaccinations are updated before traveling to Southeast Asia.

The World Health Organization in their Rabies report has estimated that 20,000 to 25,000 people die each year in Southeast Asia. This is accounts for about 45% of all rabies death worldwide.

Because of these astounding numbers, every traveler to Southeast Asia should have updated rabies vaccinations. The group that seems to be particularly vulnerable during their travels is the backpackers. This is partly because many backpackers may be in local areas or out walking on the roads more than travelers who are at a hotel and taking taxies or private cars.

Children ages 5 to 15 years old account for the majority of dog bites in the affected area. Most of the time, it affects people in poverty because they are exposed to not vaccinated animals. They themselves also do not get the vaccinations.

Dogs on the streets

Throughout Southeast Asia, many people will have a dog that they may consider a guard dog. Many times they will let the dogs loose on the streets without any muzzle. Many of these same dogs are trained to be very mean as they want them to protect their property. These dog owners may not see the need to have these dogs be vaccinated against rabies.

As many places have no law or legal requirements that enforce regular animal vaccination or medical care of these animals, they see no need to spend the money and vaccinate their pets or guard dogs.

I have personally had two horrible experiences with these mean street dogs. These events happened in Hanoi’s West Lake area, known to be the ex-pat area or where many foreigners live. I mention this as generally the streets are clean, but still, some dogs roam the streets in attendance and without muzzles. Some of these dogs can be quite mean.

The first incident happened when my maid was walking my dogs. Suddenly out of nowhere, a dog came and bit my dog right in the kidney, and he instantly died. We called the police, and the police talked to the owner. No law makes a dog killing another dog a crime of any kind. There was nothing to force the owner to take responsibility, and the owners felt they had done nothing wrong. I noticed that the dog was still roaming the streets sometime later, but he did have on a muzzle. I also heard that this same dog has previously bitten other dogs and other people.

Another incident happened when I was out walking my dog, and a dog came up and bit me in the leg. We went to the house owner to ask them to provide documentation to show their dog had all their shots updated. The house owner could not provide any documentation for their dog or show us that their dog had their rabies shot. I had to get treatment for rabies. The first clinic I went to in Hanoi to get the shot did not have any shots left, so they sent me to another clinic.

If you happen to get a bite while in Hanoi, you can read our blog entitled Guide to Emergency Medical Care in Hanoi. Vietnam by clicking here. This blog tells you the major clinics or hospitals you can get adequate medical care.

Dragon, Tibetan Spaniel
Know how to properly approach a dog. Dragon, Tibetan Spaniel, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Facts about rabies

Here are some facts about Rabies. Most of these facts have come from the World Health Organization:

  • Dog bites cause 99% of human cases of rabies. The silva of an infected animal transmits rabies. So it does not need to be just a bite; it can also be a scratch that can infect you.
  • Thoroughly washing the wound with soap can help, but you need to get a vaccination if infected. Seek immediate attention if you are infected or if you suspected that you are infected. Do not take the chance and wait.
  • Rabies affects mainly rural areas, but you can also find rabies in dogs in the city. The most highly affected parts of the world for rabies are Africa and Asia.
  • There is about 1 death every 9 minutes due to rabies, but 40% of the victims are under 15 years old.
  • Learn the language of dogs. Do not try to pet a dog that is not friendly; do not throw anything at a dog or try to kick a dog. Try to walk away from the dog and leave it alone. Dogs do not just bite to bite someone. A dog will bite if they feel threatened, scared, pain, or also frustrated if they want to protect their home or territory or are not socialized to be around people or other animals. Many dog owners may purposely not socialize their dogs in many parts of Southeast Asia as they want them to be guard dogs and scare away invaders or people who should not be there.

11 top rabies virus symptoms

If you do get bitten by a dog, especially if you are traveling anywhere in Asia or Africa, we highly suggest that you seek immediate medical attention as this is such a fatal disease. If you are not able to get immediate attention, thoroughly wash the wound.

The rabies virus can lay dormant in you for 1 to 3 months. This is another reason why when an animal bites you, you suspect has rabies that you seek immediate medical attention. You may feel fine now, but the full-blown symptoms can come later. The problem is if you leave it too late, it may just be too late for the doctors to do much to help you, so best if you seek immediate medical attention after you have been bitten,

Here are some symptoms of rabies:

  • Fever – The fever is usually the first sign that something is wrong. You may feel a general weakness or tiredness. You can also feel some pain and tingling or burning around the site of the wound.
  • Headache – A headache after a bite is one of the early signs of rabies. The virus will gradually spread towards the brain and spinal cord. In the first 10 days, a person will feel a mild pain around the head in the form of constant pressure. The pain may start from the front and then the back and eventually going to the top of the head. There can also be dizziness and sensitivity to light and sound.
  • Anxiety – Another sign of rabies is anxiety or feeling very anxious all the time. The heart rate will increase, and hyperventilation is a possibility. There can be weakness and lethargy, and profuse sweating. There can also be a sharp burning in the chest or a stabbing feeling in their chest or other parts of the body. You may notice a noticeable change in their personality.
  • Digestive or gastrointestinal issues – More than likely, a person exposed to rabies will also have digestive or gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhea or constipation.
  • Hallucinations – A person with rabies may experience hallucinations. They may believe they are hearing or seeing things that no one else does. They may even think something is crawling is on them when it is not.
  • Loss of Appetite – When exposed to the rabies virus, a person may lose appetite. They may not feel like eating anything. And along with this can be a feeling of depression and hopelessness. The lack of eating can also cause muscle spasms.
  • Seizures, loss of vision, and consciousness – Rabies affect the brain’s activity so that a person who is experiencing the rabies virus can have seizures and experience a loss of vision or even burning in the eyes. They can lose consciousness and feel dizzy and lightheaded.
  • Insomnia – Due to the other symptoms, there can be insomnia. They may wake up repeatedly in the night.
  • Agitation – Agitation is another symptom of rabies. This can usually happen 10 to 15 days after they have been affected. As rabies affects the brain, there can be almost manic types of episodes.
  • Difficulty swallowing – As the rabies symptoms start to progress, a person infected with rabies may start to have difficulty swallowing. They may feel like there is constantly something blocking or obstructing their throat. There can also have a burning sensation to it.
  • Partial paralysis – As the rabies virus affects the brain functions and the spinal and nervous systems, a person with the rabies virus can have partial paralyses, such as on the face, hands, or even the vocal cords.

Suspect you are infected with rabies? Go see a doctor.

Even if you are not sure, it is always best to be 100% sure and to go to see a doctor after you have been bitten by a dog or animal that you suspect may have the rabies virus. Rabies is not a fun way to die. So if you are bitten with rabies, see a doctor immediately.

If it happens when you are traveling, you can ask the dog owner to compensate you, but depending on the dog owner, the circumstance of the bite (did you kick the dog so that dog attacked you?), you may or may not get any compensation. You can ask the owner if they have a vaccination card, but do not be surprised if this is not common in many places around southeast Asia. It could be their dog has never been to a vet.

So for your own safety, the safest way is for you to go to see a doctor. This is the safest way to ensure you are protected against this virus. Even if you have had a rabies shot and if the wound or bite is severe, I would also see a doctor and have them check out your wound. They may decide for your safety to give you a booster shot to be sure.

Rabies Treatments

There are several types of medical procedures for rabies treatments. The easiest of all these is the preventive one, which is basically a rabies shot. Here are the treatments:

Preventative:

This is a vaccine that prevents rabies before or after an animal bite. Treatment must begin BEFORE any rabies symptoms appear.

Medications:

If you have the symptoms or suspect you have rabies, then the treatment is a blood transfusion and antiviral drug.

Both of these would be more painful and time-consuming and may even require hospitalization.

Medical Procedures

There has been some experimentation of where they have put a person into a deep sleep (coma) and then medicate them against rabies.

As you can see from these three kinds of procedures, the easiest is the first one – preventative. That is why the simple procedure of the rabies shot makes the most sense. The other options are far more dangerous and intrusive for you and your body.

Koda, Hanoi, Vietnam.
If you want to pet a dog, ask the owner for permission to pet their dog. Koda, Poddle. Hanoi, Vietnam.

Other notes on rabies transmission

Dogs are not the only animals that carry the rabies virus. Any mammal can have the virus. Here are some other animals you can also get the virus from:

  • monkeys
  • raccoons
  • foxes
  • skunks
  • cattle
  • wolves
  • bat
  • cats
  • domesticated farm animals
  • groundhogs
  • weasels
  • bears
  • wild carnivores

If, for example, you decide to do some caving in southeast Asia, be careful of the bats. Also, if you are going to a place with monkeys, be careful with the monkeys’ handling.

If you plan to travel around southeast Asia, Asia, or even Africa, the smartest thing you can do is to ensure that you are vaccinated against the rabies virus. If you do happen to get bitten in your travel, then go to see a doctor so that you can ensure there is no problem. The prevention of rabies is easy, but once you get the disease, it can be fatal. It is always better for you to be safe instead of sorry.

Anita L Hummel

Hi, I live in Hanoi, Vietnam but spend time traveling the region. I love to share with you things I see and learn through my travels.

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