”The rabies vaccin is very rare to get in South America,” my medic warned me when I got my vaccines for my Colombia and Panama trip. ”In most cases people have to fly to the USA or even home for a shot,” she continued. Well, that sounded bad. But I had never heard of that so far, and it sounded like something that would not happen that often.

My medic’s advise was to get the shots in the Netherlands, but I didn’t have time anymore. In order to get the vaccin working, you’ll need at least three weeks to get these 3 shots. But, one comforting thought: how big is te change eventually that you get bitten? I would almost say it’s negligible. Almost. Because now I know better than that.

Because guess who ended up racing against the 24 hour clock to get the rare vaccin, that was not available in whole South America, exept for one place? Yep, me! And I can assure you that my medic was not exaggerating when she said it’s not uncommun to maybe even fly back home for it…

First things first

Let me first tell you a bit more about rabies. Rabies is not childish. Infection by this virus causes disfunctions in the nervous system, that in the end will put your body in a coma, and later: death. Not immediately, but after a few weeks. Honestly, I found only found out this year that rabies is deathly like that.

So there’s a tricky part about the rabies vaccin. If you never had rabies shots before, like me, and there has been a risky encouter with an suspicious animal, you’ll have to get a vaccine thats called RIG (immunoglobulin) before you can get the ‘normal’ shots. And that RIG medicin is very rare, and you need to get it within 24 hours.

If you did get the shots in your home country, you won’t be needing the RIG anymore, only the anti rabies vaccin. You get more time to find this: you’ll have 48 hours. But this medicin is not so hard to get. So that’s the deal when you didn’t get your vaccins. You’re kinda screwed.

What happened

Okay, so this is what happened. I was on Isla Grande, an island nearby Cartagena, Colombia. I wasn’t at the touristy side, but on the other side of the island. I thought it was a good idea to go and visit Casa Granda, a big, impoverished villa, that supposedly was Escobar’s. Well, going there was a mistake (will tell more in a Casa Grande blog). This was the only day in a seven weeks travel that I actually felt unsafe because of this weird trip. The island on this side was filthy and full with empty cans and what not.

Casa Grande @ Isla Grande

Once I was searching for a proper beach, I came along two agressive dogs. One was barking agressively, licking his open paw afterwards. The other was at my ankle that had a number of open wounds close to each other (I have the bad habit of scratching ALL my mosquito bites open untill it bleeds. Multiple times.) He was either licking my ankle there or went there with his nose. It all went very fast. I stepped away as quickly as possible and thought it might be a good idea to clean my ankle with water.

”Get the vaccin”

I did think about rabies, but at first I decided to leave it because I knew rabies was very, very rare ánd since I didn’t get bitten, I assumed the risk was not even existing. But after I did a little research on google, I found out that rabies is also transmittable via saliva on open skin. I thought it might be good to contact my travel insurance in the Netherlands. They would know. Just to be sure, I did, and I sent them a picture of my wounds, like they asked me to.

The only thing I expected and wanted to hear was that everything was fine. But they didn’t. ”According to our medic you need these vaccines:” followed by a couple of medicine names. Stress. I didn’t see that coming. I knew you had to get this vaccin within 24 hours after the incident. I was already in hour 17 or so. Fuck me.

My insurance quickly provided me options. The vaccin was hard to get here in South America, just like I was told. But according to the company, it should actually be in Cartagena. Thank God. I was in Cartagena. If they wouldn’t have it, the insurance company would arrange a flight to ór Miami, ór back to the Netherlands. And I wasn’t so sure how to feel about that..

Back to The Netherlands?!

Within 20 minutes I got myself to the hospital by taxi, 11 in the morning, 17 hours after the incident. In the hospital I told my story in the best Spanish I got, but that didn’t go so smooth. At all. I asked if they had the vaccin, like I was told, but before I could get an answer to that I had to get a consult. The lady behind the desk told me that they didn’t have the vaccin, and that I didn’t even needed it, since I didn’t get bitten. I was under pressure and confused.

Meanwhile I got a phone call from my insurance company back in the Netherlands that told me that it was possible that the hospital indeed didn’t have it and that, íf they had it, it was possible that they wouldn’t give it to me. Their solution: to get me on the next plane to the Netherlands to get the shot at the airport. What?! I couldn’t believe it. That would mean the end of my trip. And I still had three weeks ahead! Do I really have to get back to the Netherlands for a shot?!

They brought me to my room in a wheelchair

At that moment I did not know who to believe and especially: what I should do. At moments like these it sucks to travel by yourself. I decided to put some more pressure on the hospital, and at 3pm the medic told me that they díd had the vaccin, but they had to get it elsewhere. At 8pm I got my shot. I felt so relieved. One down! From now on it should be easy. You’d think…

Only two more shots left..

I still needed two injections in the next seven days, while I was in Colombia. These shots were easy to get. They have it almost everywhere. I decided to fly back to Medellín for a week to get my shots there. I love Medellín. I could easily frolick around in Medellín for a week more. Cartagena was too hot for me anyway. My optimistic self thought that getting the shots in Medellín would be easy. My travel insurance already had informed the hospital about my visit. But ofcourse, it wouldn’t be a proper travel with Nik On Tour if everything went smooth.

Rabies: purple: disease is common. pink: disease exists. grey: little rabies. Source: WHO 2008.

In the hospital in Medellín I got picked up from the emergency section in a wheelchair. I thought it was a little dramatic, since I can walk myself. They thought that was funny, but it just was protocol, the sir that pushed me told me. They gave me a private room for the waiting. All good, I thought, but then they told me they weren’t sure if they could release the vaccin to me, because first they wanted to check if I really needed it. And since Colombian medicals tend not to give the vaccin in a case like mine, I got stressed again. After having spent 5 hours in the hospital, they told me I could have the vaccin, but they didn’t have it in the hospital. I had to pick it up somewhere else to buy it.

I got there five minutes past closing time. I explained my story: that there had been a reservation for my vaccin. They didn’t know anything about that. And: ‘They. Were. C-L-O-S-E-D.’ I hear you. I get you. But I needed that vaccin. I got frustrated again because I could not express myself in Spanish the way I wanted to, let alone speak Spanish in medical-Spanish. They had no idea what vaccin they were ought to give me.

Eventually they on-site put a vaccin in my arm, that later seemed to be the right one.  A few days later I came back there for shot #3. And that went surprisingly smooth! Only took 3 hours of waiting. Apparently they hadn’t forgotten about the stressed out, blond tourist girl. They even got me a nickname. ”Hola, es la chica Rabia!” (Hey, there’s the rabia girl!)

All’s well that ends well

So at the end it was all fine. It took me more that 16 hours to get my shots, but at least I got them. Please do yourself a favor. No, two favors. One: If your going to a area with a risk for rabies, get your rabies shots at home. You really don’t want to end your trip because you did not get them.

Two: Make sure you have a good travel insurance. I don’t know how it works in other countries, but in the Netherlands both my travel and health insurance would cover for the shots because I got a good insurance at both sides. I didn’t really know that before. I thought I was very basically insured, but appartently I am not, and I am so, so grateful for that now.