VA is recommending that Veterans talk to their providers about rabies if they were exposed to animals while deployed overseas in the past 18 months. Rabies can be spread from animals to humans through a bite or when a rabid animal’s saliva comes in contact with a person’s eyes, scratch, or open wound. While the risk of rabies is low in the United States; Veterans, especially those of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, are at an increased risk because both countries have many stray animals, no widespread program for animal vaccination, and are considered high-risk for rabies exposure by the Global Alliance for Rabies Control.
Rabies can stay inside the body without symptoms for weeks, months and in some cases, for more than a year. Not all rabid animals show outward signs of having the rabies virus. A person who knows or thinks they have been exposed to the rabies virus must complete a course of post-exposure prophylaxis before symptoms begin. Once symptoms of the disease develop, rabies is nearly always fatal.
Between 2001 and 2010, 643 service members in theater were bitten by animals, roughly half of which were from dogs. Of those bites, 177 service members received rabies vaccinations and 25 received rabies immune globulin, a treatment for patients who didn’t previously receive a rabies vaccine but who may have been exposed.
In its September Medical Surveillance Monthly Report, the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center said animal bites often go unreported because they are considered minor wounds. Service members, however, should be aware of the risks, the report warns.