Sarah Lancestar was travelling throughout Central America when she was forced to abandon her holiday plans after a seemingly innocent act led to $60,000 worth of medical bills.
The Tasmanian local was staying at a hostel in Nicaragua when she decided to play with the household cat.
“It was pawing at me when it suddenly bit my left pointer finger,” Sarah recalled. “It was like a scratch with a puncture wound.
“I went back up to my room and sloshed the bite with water and told my friend what had happened. She, being Nicaraguan, told me not to worry.”
Sarah, who set off abroad in October last year, said she thought because everyone was playing with the cat, it would be fine.
“In hindsight, it was a bit silly to give it a pat. But I did,” she said.
According to the World Health Organisation, rabies is a viral disease which targets the central nervous system, and once symptoms appear is “virtually 100 per cent fatal”.
Despite being told not to stress over the bite, Sarah became increasingly concerned with the risk of rabies.
“I was anxious about it and no one at the hotel could tell me whether the cat had been vaccinated,” she said.
Sarah’s decision to get $235 in travel insurance paid off after having to be flown to the United States to seek immediate medical attention, costing a whopping $60,000.
Her travel insurer 1Cover advised her to get prophylaxis as soon as possible, despite having been told by local health providers not to worry if the bite “wasn’t bad”.
The Aussie tourist didn’t want to take any chances.
“I was really worried that I couldn’t get the treatment that I needed. Rabies is 100 per cent fatal, so even if there was like 0.1 per cent chance of getting it, in my mind it was better to just eliminate that,” she said.
James Martin, travel insurance expert at Finder, explained that rabies is a viral infection that affects the nervous system and is transmitted through the bite or scratch of an infected animal, such as dogs, bats, and monkeys.
“Central America has a higher incidence of rabies compared to other regions, and travellers may be at risk if they come into contact with animals while exploring the region,” he told news.com.au.
Sarah said flying back home to Australia was ruled out it as it would have placed her outside the seven-day window for rabies treatment.
Instead, she was put on a flight to Tampa, Florida, where she was able to be accompanied by a friend through her travel insurance.
Sarah went on to receive the first of four sets of rabies shots, with each shot priced at $US20,000 ($A29,000).
She received her last set of shots back home in Australia.
“I couldn’t believe the price of the shots. I definitely would not have been able to pay out of my own pocket,” she said.
The cost of her flights were also covered by the insurer.
“Travel insurance is definitely worth it, not only from the financial side, but also having someone to get advice from.”
Natalie Smith, spokesperson for 1Cover, travellers need to be aware of the risks of rabies, particular in remote and developing parts of the world.
“Talk to your doctor before you go and find out what type of vaccinations may be required as this could save you a huge amount in medical fees,” Ms Smith advised.
“Take precautions around animals, no matter how cute and friendly. And always pack travel insurance.”
Importance of travel insurance
Mr Martin agreed that if you’re planning a holiday to places such as Central America, it’s essential that you take out sufficient travel insurance before beginning your journey.
“Several months before your planned departure date, speak to your doctor about any vaccinations you may need for the countries you plan on visiting,” he reiterated.
“For example, you may need a yellow fever vaccination if you are visiting Panama. “Vaccinations against malaria, rabies, typhoid, hepatitis and a range of other conditions may also be required.
“It’s important to note that not all travel insurance policies are the same. Before purchasing a policy, be sure to read the product disclosure agreement to ensure you are covered for risks you may encounter, including rabies exposure.”