What you can learn from my Rabies scare

Rabies is nightmare fuel: It's a virus associated with zombie apocalypses, fear of water, aggressive victims and certain death.

I'm writing this post to help you avoid the sitaution I found myself in. First, we'll take a quick look at what went down in Belgrade. Then we'll look at my mistakes. And last, I'll tell you what to do, if you get bit or have been bitten.

So, what happened?

My Rabies scare started in Belgrade.
I almost never follow guides. I prefer walking around on my own to take in the authentic atmosphere and pulse of a city. I did the same in Belgrade for two weeks. On one of my last days I walk through a quiet neighborhood - public - but very quiet.

Suddenly I heard three dogs barking. A lot. Two of them came running at me, even crossing a road - giving no regards to the passing cars. They block off my path and seem very protective and territorial.

I'm not afraid of dogs and figured "no way, this is public area, I can walk here". So I kept walking. Then one of the dogs got behind me, and bit me under the knee. It wasn't a hard bite, it was more a "get out of here, right now"-warning bite. No blood, no pain, but some skin was torn.

I turned around, and then so did the dogs. I immediately went online on my phone to check what to do, because I had read you should avoid stray animals, but not why. Turned out that while rare, Rabies was indeed still present in Serbia.

My mistakes

Exercise caution around stray dogs. But take note that Rabies can be carried by many species of mammals, including bats, cats and racoons.
Mistake 1: Not respecting that the dogs felt they were protecting the area. Even if it was public or not, I wouldn't have been bitten in the first place, if I had just turned around.

Mistake 2: Not going to the medical clinic or emergency room right away. I read that incubation time for Rabies was 3 weeks to 3 months (in average - shorter is seen), so I figured "I can do it in the morning". What I didn't know at the time is that Rabies vaccine is not immediately effective. It needs time to work up a defense in your body. So, essentially: The more time you can buy yourself, the better.

Mistake 3: Not realizing the tetanus shot was probably even more important, as it has much shorter incubation time.

Mistake 4: I underestimated the threats in Europe and didn't do my research before-hand. Relatively speaking, we do have a quite safe continent. But we're not risk-free. While Rabies is very, very rare in Serbia, now knowing what I do, I would've gotten the Rabies vaccine for peace of mind.

Avoid worries

Being scared or worried is natural. It's your survival instincts. But it's not how we imagine spending our vacations.
The fact that I didn't go the medical clinic right away, and instead spent the night reading about Rabies was an onset of an avalanche of "what if"s.

Irrational thoughts, obviously. And you know they're irrational, but still they latch into you. It's not exactly a fun way to spend your vacation!

It wasn't until the next day I learned that Rabies was so rare in Serbia, that in 2017 Rabies was near extinction level and only a wild fox had been found with Rabies that year. Still, it didn't calm me down. Actually, I wasn't calm until I had gotten the first vaccine shot.

But I believe this scare was important for me. It made me realize I needed a lot of vaccines, even just for traveling within Europe. The safety of Europe - and how safe I feel in Europe - was actually a downside for once. Because I never thought to check up on what vaccines we Europeans would be recommended.

The best thing you can do is ask a doctor or a travel vaccine clinic what's recommended for the destination(s) you're traveling to. Plan accordingly, because it may take a while to complete certain vaccination schedules.

"I got bit, what now?"

Rabies vaccine can be given both before and after a bite. You should seek medical attention after contact with a suspected rabid animal, even if you're already vaccinated.
The first thing you should do, is getting down to a medical clinic or emergency room.

Once Rabies has broken out, there's no cure. But up until that point you should do everything you can to receive the post-exposure vaccination program.

When I came to the medical clinic in Vienna, the doctor let me choose between two post-exposure programs:

The doctor will know which schedule to put you on.

Depending on the wound the doctor may also choose to inject a temporary immunization called immunoglobulin, which will protect you until the vaccine is fully functional.

If you were bitten or have been in contact with an animal suspected to be rabid, you should seek medical attention immediately to start the post-exposure prophylaxis. You should do this, even if you're already vaccinated.