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Background: Of the 36 cases of human rabies that have occurred in the United States since 1980, 12 (33%) were presumed to have been acquired abroad. In the United States, it is recommended that international travelers likely to come in contact with animals in canine rabies-enzootic areas that lack immediate access to appropriate medical care, including vaccine and rabies immune globulin, should be considered for preexposure prophylaxis. In 1992, the death of an American missionary who had contracted rabies while stationed in Bangladesh highlighted this high-risk group.

Methods: To assess their knowledge of rabies risk, rabies exposures, and compliance with preventive recommendations, we asked 695 missionaries and their family members to complete questionnaires about their time stationed abroad.

Results: Of the 293 respondents stationed in countries where rabies is endemic, 37% reported prior knowledge of the presence of rabies in their country of service. Only 28% of the personnel stationed in rabies-endemic countries received preexposure prophylaxis. Having preexposure prophylaxis specifically recommended increased the likelihood of actually receiving it (O.R. 15.6, 95%CI 7.4 – 34.9). There were 38 reported exposures (dogs = 66%, another human = 20%), proven or presumed to be rabid. Three of the people exposed received rabies immune globulin and vaccine; 11 received vaccine alone; 8 received only basic first aid, and 16 received no treatment.

Conclusions: Although American missionaries stationed abroad are at an increased risk for exposure to rabies, compliance with established preventive measures was low. Prior to being stationed abroad, an educational rabies-prevention briefing, including encouragement to receive preexposure prophylaxis, could be an effective intervention for missionaries to decrease their risk of rabies.