A few years ago, a tour agent in a Caribbean country tried to convince me that taking my young children in an open-sided vehicle on a drive over the country’s highways was perfectly safe. My response was that the laws of physics don’t go on vacation when I do – meaning that a car accident with unrestrained children is a bad thing even on a nice sunny island. The same concept goes for infectious diseases: when on vacation, you should try to leave your worries behind, but not your common sense. Travel-acquired diseases are extremely common. Transient, annoying, but usually self-limiting problems like food poisoning affect thousands of people on vacation, but more serious diseases can also be encountered.

A recent rabies outbreak in dogs in Bali highlights some of these concerns. Rabies is common in stray/feral dogs in many countries, and there can be huge dog populations in some common tourist areas. It’s human nature for many people to want to feed or pet these strays. However, people often forget about the potential for rabies exposure. An additional concern is that proper post-exposure treatment for rabies may not be readily accessible in many countries. Some countries are mounting aggressive vaccination programs of strays in response to the risk to local inhabitants and tourists, but people need to be aware that the risk exists and can be very significant. It has been reported that 23 people from Britain have died of rabies acquired abroad since 1946. That’s not a huge number, but it’s not good if you are one of those 23, and such tragedies are preventable.

Remember these simple points when you are on vacation:

  • Stay away from strays (dogs or cats).
  • Report dogs that are acting strangely to local authorities or someone else that might be able to help (such as a hotel concierge).
  • If you are bitten, take it seriously. If you cannot identify the dog, confirm its rabies vaccination status and ensure that it is properly quarantined, you should probably be considered exposed to rabies. If that is the case, get post-exposure treatment as soon as possible.
  • If you are going to have contact with stray dogs or wild mammals during your vacation, such as volunteering with animal care groups, get vaccinated against rabies before you go.
  • Always remember to pack some common sense.