Electron microscope image of rabies virus. Photo by Norden, a Smith-Kline Company via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

New Zealand’s first recorded case of rabies – Expert Reaction

A traveller who contracted the rabies virus overseas was diagnosed in New Zealand last week and subsequently died.

Health officials say person-to-person transmission of rabies almost never happens, so there is no risk to members of the public. The case is the first in Aotearoa, but because the virus is not present in our animal or human populations, it doesn’t change our rabies-free status.

The SMC asked experts to comment.

Professor David Hayman, School of Veterinary Science, Massey University, comments:

“The death of someone from rabies is tragic. There will be no risk to others because it is not transmissible among people. Unfortunately, tens of thousands of people die of rabies each year, often children in poor countries. Rabies is an entirely vaccine preventable disease in people and animals that is transmitted through the bite of an infected animal, typically a domestic dog, but also sometimes wild animals. Unfortunately, the disease is also always fatal.

“We are lucky in New Zealand that rabies is not present, but it is important for people who travel abroad to understand the risk and avoid being exposed to rabies through animal bites and if going to high-risk areas to get vaccinated. If people do get bitten abroad it is essential to thoroughly wash the wound and seek immediate medical attention to get post-exposure prophylaxis, because there is no treatment once someone has symptoms.”

No conflict of interest

Dr Joanna McKenzie, One Health epidemiologist, School of Veterinary Science, Massey University, comments:

“It is tragic that rabies has taken the life of a New Zealander who was infected while travelling overseas. New Zealand is one of the relatively few countries in the world that is free of rabies. This case doesn’t change the situation in New Zealand as rabies doesn’t spread from person to person.

“The Ministry of Primary Industries has strict protocols in place for people importing dogs and cats to prevent the deadly disease from being introduced. This includes inspection of boats arriving in New Zealand to ensure any animals on board meet the strict rabies prevention requirements.

“Rabies is present in most areas of the world and more than 60,000 people die from rabies each year, especially those living in poor rural areas in Asia and Africa. Dogs are the main reservoir of rabies and the major cause of rabies cases in people. People become infected by being bitten or scratched by a dog or cat whose saliva is infected with rabies. In some countries wild animals such as skunks, racoons, foxes and bats are reservoirs of rabies and can also infect people through bites or scratches.

“When travelling abroad it is very important to understand if rabies is present and what animals harbour the virus so you can take actions to avoid being exposed. Rabies can be prevented by vaccination, either before coming into contact with potentially infected animals or immediately after possible exposure. Pre-exposure vaccination is recommended if you are likely to be working with animals and/or spending time in high-risk areas. Being vaccinated immediately after being bitten or scratched can also prevent a person from developing the disease and dying. If bitten or scratched by a dog or wild animal whilst overseas, it is extremely important to thoroughly wash the wound with soapy water and immediately seek treatment at a medical centre. Unfortunately the disease is fatal once symptoms have developed.”

No conflict of interest declared.