Stray Dogs in Africa:
Everywhere you go in Africa you'll see stray, mangy, skittish looking dogs. Dog lovers traveling in these parts can get very tempted to feed and pet these sorry souls, but you should really try to avoid contact because they may carry rabies. In fact any interaction with animals can carry the risk of rabies; pet monkeys, mongooses and cats included.
What is Rabies:
Rabies is a preventable viral disease of mammals most often transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal. It is fatal if left untreated. Many wild animals and stray dogs carry rabies throughout Africa.
Personal Experience with Rabies:
I was bitten by a dog when I was 10 years old and ended up getting 14 shots in my stomach to avoid getting rabies. I have many friends who were afraid to report an animal bite because the treatment was so severe. Now luckily, there are more humane preventative measures you can take (see below). The dog was not a stray, it was somebody's pet. But like many pet dogs in Africa, it was primarily a guard dog and was prone to attacking anyone it wasn't familiar with.
Don't feed, pet or come close to any animal unless the owner is nearby and gives you permission. Don't get close to any pet monkeys or other poor wild animals that have been taken as pets. If you are walking in rural areas carry a stick, the threat will usually scare away any stray dogs, they tend to be quite skittish and harmless. Those that carry rabies however can be aggressive.
What to Do if You are Bitten by an Animal in Africa:
If you get bitten or scratched by any animal in Africa, you should get a rabies shot. Even if you are bitten by a pet dog, you have to seek medical help immediately. This is because a pet dog may have come into contact with a stray dog carrying rabies in the recent past. You can't risk it with rabies because it's fatal if left undetected.
If there's a known rabid dog in the area, local authorities will usually warn people in the neighborhood to stay inside for a set period and will then proceed to shoot every stray dog in sight. I grew up in Malawi and every 6 months or so we would lock up our dogs for two days while government officials went around shooting any animal within their sights. Walking your dog even in your own garden during this time was fraught with danger as the shooting accuracy left a lot to be desired.
Symptoms of Rabies:
Rabies virus infects the central nervous system, causing encephalopathy and ultimately death. Early symptoms of rabies in humans are nonspecific, consisting of fever, headache, and general malaise. As the disease progresses, neurological symptoms appear and may include insomnia, anxiety, confusion, slight or partial paralysis, excitation, hallucinations, agitation, hypersalivation, difficulty swallowing, and hydrophobia (fear of water). Death usually occurs within days of the onset of symptoms.
Treatment for Rabies:
There is no treatment for rabies after symptoms of the disease appear. However, two decades ago scientists developed an extremely effective new rabies vaccine regimen that provides immunity to rabies when administered after an exposure (post-exposure prophylaxis) or for protection before an exposure occurs (pre-exposure prophylaxis). It is worth getting a Rabies shot before you travel to Africa.