Bali’s rabies outbreak continues to claim lives, largely because of inadequate access to proper healthcare. The death toll from this outbreak, which has been ongoing for about two years, is officially 58, although the true count may be higher.
The latest case was a 57-year-old temple priest who was infected after trying to break up a fight between strays dogs and his puppy. He was bitten by a stray dog in the process, but did not receive any post-exposure rabies vaccination because of a vaccine shortage. Rabies is basically 100% preventable when proper care is provided after an exposure, but inadequate access to proper treatment remains a problem, particularly in certain areas and in less developed countries. The priest started to develop signs of rabies about two months after the bite, which is a pretty typical time frame. Once signs of rabies are present, it’s almost invariably fatal, and he unfortunately succumbed to the disease shortly after being hospitalized.
Despite ongoing efforts to control this outbreak, rabies remains a serious problem in Bali, and many stray dogs remain unvaccinated. Inadequate education of the public is a problem since not everyone who is bitten goes to a doctor, especially for minor bites. However, even if people go to a doctor, the shortage of rabies vaccine is a huge problem. This whole situation is clearly not under control.
Visitors to Bali need to be aware of this ongoing outbreak. If you are traveling to Bali:
- Avoid contact with stray dogs. You never know who’s rabid.
- If you are bitten, promptly clean the wound and get to a physician.
- If you are bitten by a stray, make sure you get post-exposure treatment: a shot of anti-rabies-antibody and 4 (previously 5) rounds of vaccine over a few weeks. If you can’t get the treatment started in Bali, get it as soon as possible. Rabies exposure is not an emergency, but you don’t want to unnecessarily delay treatment. You don’t need to be immediately evacuated from the country to a place you can be treated, but at the same time, you don’t want to take your time, travel for a while, then get vaccinated a week or two later. You’d probably be fine, but rabies is not something with which to take chances. The incubation period is variable and the rapidity of onset depends in part on the severity and location of the bite. In particular, a severe bite to the head or neck region would be an indication for very prompt treatment. So, if you’re bitten, don’t panic, but try to get back home and get treated as soon as is reasonably possible.
Rabies vaccination of people planning on visiting Bali is not recommended, unless you are planning on having contact with dogs. If you are going to Bali to take part in stray dog vaccination, then rabies vaccination would absolutely be indicated. Otherwise, it’s not really something that’s needed. If you don’t get bitten, you won’t get exposed, and a little common sense goes a long way toward avoiding dog bites.