Public Health England (PHE) has announced that a UK resident has sadly died after becoming infected with rabies following a cat bite during a visit to Morocco.
They said that while there was no risk to the wider public, as a precautionary measure, health workers and close contacts of the person who died were being assessed and offered vaccination when necessary.
Dr Tina Kenny, medical director of Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust, confirmed that the UK resident passed away at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. She said an internal review would be carried out “given that deaths from rabies are so rare in this country”.
PHE have consequently issued a reminder to travellers to avoid coming into contact with animals when travelling to rabies affected countries due to the risk of catching the disease.
Rabies is passed on through injuries such as bites and scratches from an infected animal. There are no documented instances of direct human to human transmission.
Rabies does not circulate in either wild or domestic animals in the UK, although some species of bats can carry a rabies-like virus.
In the UK, human rabies is extremely rare with only 5 cases of human rabies associated with animal exposures abroad occurred between 2000 and 2017.
The UK has been rabies-free since the beginning of the 20th century, with the exception of rabies-like viruses in some wild bat species. The last recorded rabies case in the UK was in 2012. In that instance, the individual was bitten by a dog in South Asia.
No human cases of rabies acquired in the UK from animals other than bats have been reported since 1902. A single case of human rabies acquired from a bat was reported in 2002 in Scotland; this individual had sustained a number of bat bites.
According to the World Health Organization, the disease occurs in more than 150 countries and causes tens of thousands of deaths every year, mainly in Asia and Africa. It says in up to 99% of cases, domestic dogs are responsible for the transmission of the virus to humans.
PHE remind that when travelling to rabies affected countries travellers should avoid contact with dogs, cats and other animals wherever possible, and seek advice about the need for rabies vaccine prior to travel.
Anyone who has been bitten, scratched, or licked by an animal in a country with rabies, or has had direct contact with a bat in this country, should take immediate action by washing the wound or site of exposure with plenty of soap and water. Local medical advice should be sought without delay, even in those who have been previously vaccinated.
When given promptly after an exposure, a course of rabies vaccine is extremely effective at preventing the disease. If such an exposure occurs abroad, the traveller should also consult their doctor on return, so that the course of rabies treatment can be completed. If travellers have not sought medical advice abroad, they should contact their doctor promptly upon return for assessment.
Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisations at PHE, said: “This is an important reminder of the precautions people should take when travelling to countries where rabies is present.”