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Overview

This Guidelines summary provides a practical guide to undertaking risk assessment of potential rabies exposures and the correct use of post-exposure treatment for rabies. It also describes the logistics of issuing vaccines and immunoglobulins as appropriate, and the clinical governance aspects of Colindale.

It is aimed at duty doctors at the Rabies and Immunoglobulin Service (RIgS), Colindale; health protection teams; and other health professionals who may be involved in the assessment and management of potential rabies exposures. 

For the complete set of recommendations on managing rabies post-exposure, refer to the full guideline. 

View this summary online at guidelines.co.uk/454247.article

Introduction

  • Rabies is an acute viral encephalomyelitis caused by several members of the Rhabdoviridae family. It transmits through infected saliva via bites or scratches from rabid animals (in particular dogs). It is almost invariably fatal once symptoms develop
  • Rabies still poses a significant public health problem in many countries in Asia and Africa, where 95% of all human deaths from rabies occur. Post-exposure treatment (PET) using rabies vaccine with or without rabies immunoglobulin (HRIG) is highly effective in preventing disease if given correctly and promptly after exposure
  • The UK has been free of rabies in terrestrial animals since 1922. However, European Bat Lyssavirus 1 was found for the first time in serotine bats (Eptesicus serotinus) in southern England in 2018, and European Bat Lyssavirus 2, a rabies-like virus, has been found in Daubenton's bats (Myotis daubentonii) across the UK. A soprano pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pygmaeus) tested positive for lyssavirus antigen in 2020, but there was insufficient RNA to type the virus
  • Further information, guidance, and the risk assessment form are available on the rabies pages of the UK government website

Risk assessment

  • Individual risk assessment of potential rabies prone exposures should be undertaken promptly, so that PET can be initiated if required. Although treatment should be started promptly, initiating rabies PET is not a medical emergency, and can often wait until the next day. In complex cases treatment can be initiated and further advice sought from consultants within the RIgS on the next working day
  • All risk assessments should be completed using the rabies post-exposure risk assessment form and either directly uploaded into HPZone, or emailed to RIgS by secure email. The form can be encrypted using the button on the form, and the password sent in a separate email.

Post-exposure risk assessment: does the person need PET?

  • The following information is required to complete the risk assessment:
    • patient name, date of birth, age, address, and NHS number if possible
    • date of exposure
    • country of exposure
    • species and current health status of animal involved
    • category of exposure
    • site of exposure
    • whether the patient is immunosuppressed or has any allergies
    • any previous rabies vaccinations or immunoglobulin treatment
  • This should be recorded in the rabies post-exposure form which can be found on the Public Health England (PHE) duty doctor pack and on the UK Government website
  • All enquiries should be recorded with the patient details, even if vaccine and/or immunoglobulin are not issued. 

Patient details

  • Complete the patient details as indicated. The PET form also acts as the written order if vaccine or immunoglobulin is issued. It is a legal requirement for these cases to record the date of birth (four digits for the year), age if under 18 years old (the form should calculate this for you) and the patient's address. 

Date of exposure

  • Risk assessment should be undertaken as soon as reasonable following exposure, so that PET, if required, can be started promptly. The incubation period for rabies is typically 1–3 months, but may vary from less than 1 week to  more than 2 years. Due to the potentially long incubation period for rabies there is no time limit for giving PET and all potential exposures should be risk assessed. This will include knowing what the animal and/or country risk was at the time of the exposure
  • If the exposure is more than 1 year ago, vaccine may still be given, although HRIG is not generally indicated. Specialist advice should be sought from the RIgS team. 

Which country?

  • The risk of rabies in each country takes into account the presence or absence of endemic rabies in domesticated cats and dogs (companion animals) and the presence or absence of rabies in wildlife
  • All countries should be considered as risk countries for bat exposures, including the UK and Ireland, which are considered low risk for bat bites
  • The combined risk of rabies according to geographical location (country, island, and territory) and animal exposure is updated regularly. This information is incorporated into the Rabies PET form and the most recent version of the combined country and/or animal risks can be found on the UK Government website. 

Category of exposure

  • The assessment of exposure needs to take into account the risk of direct physical contact with saliva, neural tissue, and other body fluids. The assessment will be different for terrestrial mammals and bats
  • In the UK most bat bites are felt, not seen, and rarely cause an obvious break in the skin, but should still be considered a direct physical exposure (category 3). PHE recommends that all bat bites should be treated
  • In the UK and Ireland most bats found in houses and attics in the UK are pipistrelles, which rarely infected with rabies-related viruses. Healthy bats avoid contact with humans, therefore bats behaving normally (for example, flying into a room but not grounded or acting aggressively) do not constitute a risk. The only exception to this is where the individual, for specific reasons such as age, intoxication, or mental impairment cannot give a reliable history of a potential bite or other exposure and therefore should be considered a category 2 exposure
  • For countries outside the UK and Ireland, any bat found in the room of a sleeping or intoxicated person should be considered a category 2 exposure. In the USA, 50% of human rabies with bat-variant virus have resulted from unrecognised bat bites. 

Table 1: Category of exposure

CategoryTerrestrial mammalsBats
1

No physical contact with saliva

For example:

  • touching, stroking, or feeding animals

 

No physical contact (for example, no direct contact with the bat’s saliva)

For example:

  • touching a dead bat
  • touching a bat where the person was protected by a barrier capable of preventing saliva contact, such as a boot, shoe, or appropriate protective clothing
  • a bat in the same room as a person (including a sleeping person) in the UK or Ireland
2

Minimal contact with saliva and/or unable to infiltrate wound with HRIG if needed

For example:

  • bruising or abrasions
  • licks to broken skin (for example, over insect bites or scratches)
  • scratches
  • bites that do not break the skin

Uncertain physical contact (for example, where there has been no observed direct physical contact [with saliva] but this could have occurred)

For example:

  • handling a bat without appropriate protective clothing (for example, gloves)
  • a bat becoming tangled in hair
  • potential contact with a bat in the UK or Ireland in someone who is unable to give an accurate history of an exposure (for example, an intoxicated individual, young child, individual with mental impairment)
  • any bat found in the room of a sleeping person outside of the UK or Ireland
3

Direct contact with saliva

For example:

  • severe or deep lacerations (for example, down to the muscle)
  • bites that break the skin
  • contact of mucous membranes with saliva (for example, licks)

0

Site of bite—additional useful information

  • The site of the bite should be given if known. If the bite is to the head or neck and treatment with HRIG is required, PET must be started as soon as possible within 12 hours of reporting
  • If the animal was a terrestrial mammal (wild or domestic), these details are useful:
    • if the animal has died, does laboratory examination of the animal’s brain confirm rabies?
    • is rabies known or suspected to be present in the species in the locality?
    • is there a known owner and are they contactable?
    • was the animal behaving normally at the time of the incident?
    • had it been immunised against rabies?
    • if the animal was a dog or a cat, did it become ill while under observation?
    • is the animal non-indigenous or imported? If imported, it is important to determine the risk of rabies in both the country of potential exposure and the country of origin of the animal.

For information on imported pets, animals in quarantine, and exotic pets and non-indigenous animals in zoos or wildlife centres in the UK, refer to the full guideline. 

Composite rabies risk

  • Using the combined country or animal risk and the category risk, a composite rabies risk is given a red, amber, or green rating
  • This rating is then used with the past medical history to determine what treatment, if any, is required
  • All exposures with a green composite risk rating do not need treatment for this exposure, unless there are extenuating circumstances in the additional information field.

Table 2: Composite rabies risk

Country/animal riskCategory 1 exposureCategory 2 exposureCategory 3 exposure
No risk Green Green Green 
Low risk  Green  Amber  Amber 
High risk  Green Amber  Red 
Confirmed rabid animal[A]
Green/Amber[ A]
Red Red
[A] Advice should be sought from the RIgS team in the assessment of these contacts

Significant past medical history

  • Information is required in three main areas:
    • is the patient severely immunosuppressed?
    • does the patient have a relevant past medical history requiring caution when given vaccines or immunoglobulin?
    • has the patient received any previous (that is, before the current incident) rabies vaccines and/or immunoglobulin?

Immunosuppression

  • Severe immunosuppression is described in chapter 6 of the Green Book as the conditions where the individual should not receive live vaccines
  • Anyone who falls into any of the groups listed should be considered to be immunosuppressed and will require treatment with five doses of vaccine and HRIG for any red or amber exposures, and follow-up blood tests at the time of the fourth dose of vaccine (day 14)
  • The vaccines are given by the intramuscular (IM) route at the following intervals: 0, 3, 7, 14, and 30 days. Day 0 is the day of the first vaccine, NOT necessarily the day of exposure
  • Full details, including doses of medication, should be provided on the form so that the degree of immunosuppression can be assessed.

Other relevant history

  • Should include any history of allergy or bleeding disorders. There are no contraindications for rabies vaccination and/or HRIG if the risk assessment indicates it is needed. However, if there is a history of allergy to any of the excipients, the vaccine/HRIG should be given under close medical supervision with the ability to appropriately manage anaphylactic reactions
  • IM injection is the preferred route of vaccine administration. However, for individuals with a bleeding discorder, vaccinations should be given by subcutaneous injection to reduce the risk of bleeding.

Previous rabies pre-exposure prophylaxis or post-exposure treatment

  • For those without severe immunosuppression, the immune status will be based on history of previous vaccination, either as part of rabies post-exposure treatment or pre-exposure prophylaxis given before the current exposure. Ignore any treatment given following the current incident being assessed, as this will only affect what further treatment needs to be given.  Full information of previous vaccinations should be given on the form.

Immunosuppressed

Fully immunised

  • At least three documented doses of rabies vaccine (on at least 2 separate days, either as a complete primary pre-exposure course or as part of a four or five dose post-exposure treatment course) or documented rabies virus neutralising antibody (VNA) titres of at least 0.5 IU/ml
    • if within the last 3 months the patient has completed a rabies post-exposure treatment course (either four doses of vaccine, or two doses if previously fully immunised), no further treatment is required for a more recent exposure.

Partially immunised

  • Person who has had an incomplete/inadequate primary vaccination course (that is, less than three doses of IM pre-exposure prophylaxis, or anything less than three doses of intradermal vaccine over 2 separate days), or VNA never greater than 0.5 IU/ml.

Non immunised

  • Person who has never received pre- or post-exposure immunisation with rabies vaccine.

Treatment recommendations

Treatment based on risk assessment

  • A formal risk assessment based on the composite rabies risk and the vaccine status should be performed; recommended treatment will generally fall into five categories (see Table 3):
    • no risk and therefore no treatment required
    • vaccine only
    • vaccine and HRIG
    • vaccine, HRIG, and blood test with the fourth dose of vaccine—see the section, Immunosuppression
    • observation of animal (domestic cats and dogs only—see section B4 of the full guideline)
  • HRIG is not required more than 7 days after the first dose of vaccine, or more than 1 day after the second dose. HRIG is also not required for partially immunised patients (unless immunosuppressed).

Table 3: Post-exposure treatment based on composite rabies risk and vaccine status

 Post-exposure treatment
Composite rabies risk Non-immunised/partially immunised Fully immunised Immunosuppressed 
Green None None None 
Amber

Four doses of vaccine

day 0, 3, 7, and 21

Two doses of vaccine

day 0 and day 3–7

HRIG and five doses of vaccine

day 0, 3, 7, 14, and 30

Red 

HRIG[A] and four doses of vaccine

day 0, 3, 7, and 21

Two doses of vaccine

day 0 and day 3–7

HRIG and five doses of vaccine

day 0, 3, 7, 14,[B] and 30

[A] HRIG is not required more than 7 days after the first dose of vaccine, or more than 1 day after the second dose. HRIG is not required for partially immunised patients (unless immunosuppressed)

[B] Send sample for antibody testing

HRIG=human rabies immunoglobulin

What treatment has already been given?

  • If treatment has already been started, find out details of what has been given, route of administration, and timing. Consider whether:
    • treatment is appropriate to exposure
    • which vaccine (type and name of vaccine if known)—is this compatible with vaccines given in the UK? (see section G in the full guideline)
    • what vaccine schedule and route has been used—is this compatible with the UK schedule?
    • has HRIG been given—if not, is this indicated and is there still time to give this?
    • how soon does the patient need to receive their next treatment?
  • If no treatment has been started, PET, at least with vaccine, should ideally be started within 24 hours of contact with PHE. However, for high risk exposures, such as severe and multiple bites to the head and neck or from a confirmed rabid animal, treatment must be started as soon as possible within 12 hours of reporting. All NHS Trusts in England should have locally available rabies vaccine so prompt treatment can be initiated. 

Is vaccine required?

  • The UK schedule for immunocompetent individuals is four vaccines at the following interval 0, 3, 7, 21 days given by the IM route
  • Day 0 is the day of first vaccine, NOT necessarily the day of exposure
  • If an individual insists on a particular type of vaccine not held within the PHE supply, this will have to be sourced and paid for privately by that individual
  • If a dose is missed, or timing has been compromised, the next vaccine should be considered as the missed dose, and subsequent intervals readjusted
  • If a person is travelling and has difficulty in achieving the specified interval for PET, it is most important to deliver the first three vaccines with plus or minus 1 day
  • The fourth and final dose of rabies vaccine PET must not be given before day 21
  • If the fourth dose of vaccine has been given before day 21, a fifth dose of vaccine should be administered. This should be 2 weeks after the fourth dose. Enter the date of the fourth vaccine in the day 14 box, and change the recommended treatment to five doses of vaccine
  • In a patient who is partially immunised, a full course of four doses of rabies vaccine should be given, but there is no need to issue HRIG
  • In a patient who is fully immune at the time of exposure the UK schedule is two vaccines at day 0 and day 3–7
  • If an immunocompetent patient who is fully immune is inadvertently given HRIG, they will need a complete four-dose course of vaccines. 

For information on patients started on alternative regimens, refer to the full guideline. 

Is HRIG required?

  • The mainstay of PET is rabies vaccine. HRIG may provide short-term immunity in the first 7 days post initiation of treatment
  • The total antibody level induced by active immunisation (vaccine) is many orders of magnitude greater than can be provided by passive immunisation (HRIG). For this reason HRIG is not given more than 7 days after the first dose of rabies vaccine or to an individual who is already partially or previously immunised. HRIG is not indicated if the person has already received two doses of rabies vaccine, (that is, day 0 and day 3 doses) or if the exposure was more than 12 months previously
  • HRIG is manufactured from non-UK human blood products. The final formulation is a liquid and the potency of the material is assessed in international units (IU/ml). The maximum dose is 20 IU/kg; adults and children (all ages), and should not be exceeded as it may inhibit the immune response to rabies vaccine
  • The packaging of the HRIG will have the minimum quantity of immunoglobulin in the vial. This should not be used for calculating the dose required. Instead the potency recorded on the vial itself must be used
  • The preparations of HRIG available for dispensing do vary in potency and volume. It is therefore CRITICAL to know the following:
    • the potency of the current batch in use; information about potency of batches in current use is encoded into the rabies PET form, is available on the PHE website, is also available from the RIgS team (0330 128 1020), and is on the individual vial
    • weight of the patient
    • volume that is contained in the vials (vials contain 1–4 ml, depending on batch and manufacturer)

      If the weight (in kg—there is a calculator on the ‘Weight converter’ page to convert stones and lbs to kg if needed) and the lot number of the HRIG to be issued are entered into the form, the dose, volume and number of vials to be issued will be calculated, and be automatically given on the patient's letters. 

Administering vaccine and HRIG

  • Vaccine is given in the deltoid muscle by IM injection. Each sequential dose should be given in alternate deltoids. Suggest starting in nondominant arm
  • The schedule is indicated in the letter and calendar that should accompany a copy of the risk assessment form
  • HRIG acts to neutralise the virus at the site of the wound and to be effective HRIG must be infiltrated around the site of the wound. If it is not possible to infiltrate the whole volume at the site then any excess can be given by IM injection in the anterolateral thigh. Only in the case of mucous membrane contamination should the whole volume of HRIG be given intramuscularly
  • If more than 5 ml (2 ml in children under 20 kg) of HRIG needs to be administered intramuscularly it should be in divided doses, at different sites
  • Vaccine and HRIG should never be given at the same anatomical site.

How soon should treatment be started?

  • Although treatment should be started promptly, initiating rabies PET is not a medical emergency. In most cases rabies vaccine/HRIG can be sent out for administration the next day. However for high risk exposures, such as severe and multiple bites to the head and neck or from a confirmed rabid animal, treatment must be started as soon as possible within 12 hours of reporting. All NHS Trusts in England should have rabies vaccine available so prompt tratment can be initiated, and the vaccine will be replaced if the RIgS team is contacted by the end of the next working day. 

For information on rabies antibody testing, refer to the full guideline. 

 

Full guideline:

UK Health Security Agency. Guidelines on managing rabies post-exposure. August 2020. Available from: gov.uk/government/publications/rabies-post-exposure-prophylaxis-management-guidelines

Published date: 01 January 2013.

Last updated: 17 September 2021.