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Why is there no rabies in Australia?

Rabies is a viral disease that affects the central nervous system of mammals, including humans. It is spread through contact with the saliva of an infected animal, usually via a bite wound. Rabies has been effectively eliminated from Australia, making it one of the few countries in the world that is rabies-free.

When did rabies disappear from Australia?

Rabies was present in Australia during the 19th century, when periodic epidemics caused by the introduction of rabid animals from Europe led to a number of human deaths. Strict quarantine policies were implemented in the early 20th century, requiring dogs imported to Australia to undergo a minimum 6-month quarantine period. No rabies deaths have been recorded in Australia since 1902.

The last outbreak of rabies in Australia occurred in bats in Queensland in 1996-1997. Aggressive control measures were taken, involving population reduction of infected bat colonies as well as surveillance, public awareness and pet vaccination programs. Since then, Australia has maintained its rabies-free status.

How has Australia managed to remain rabies-free?

There are several key factors that have enabled Australia to remain rabies-free:

  • Strict border controls and quarantine regulations for imported animals
  • An island continent geographic location making natural spread difficult
  • Swift control measures when outbreaks occur, involving culling of infected wildlife populations
  • Lack of wild terrestrial reservoirs (e.g. foxes, raccoons) that can harbor and transmit rabies
  • High rates of pet vaccination and public awareness about rabies prevention
  • Effective surveillance systems to detect any incursions

Border Control and Quarantine

Australia has very strong biosecurity measures and strict import conditions for bringing domestic animals into the country. Dogs and cats entering Australia must spend at least 10 days in quarantine and be vaccinated for rabies prior to arrival. Horses require a minimum 30 day pre-export quarantine. For animals originating from rabies-infected countries, quarantine periods are extended to 2-6 months in government approved facilities.

Illegal importation of animals is also deterred through penalties and enforcement. These quarantine policies minimize the risk of rabies entering via infected imported animals.

Geographic Isolation

As an island continent, Australia has natural biosecurity advantages being geographically isolated from rabies-endemic nearby countries in Asia. Rabies spread by land migration of infected animals is extremely unlikely. Any outbreaks must be caused by direct introductions through human activity.

Swift Control of Outbreaks

When the bat rabies outbreak occurred in 1996-97, it was aggressively controlled before the disease could become established in wild bat colonies. Infected colonies were culled and surveillance activities increased to detect spread. Public education was used to encourage bat avoidance and ensure domestic animal vaccination. The outbreak was declared over by late 1997.

This demonstrated Australia’s capability in mounting rapid responses to eliminate rabies incursions and prevent establishment in wildlife reservoirs.

Lack of Wildlife Reservoirs

Terrestrial wildlife species play an important role in rabies persistence and transmission cycles in many parts of the world. Major reservoirs include foxes, raccoons, skunks and jackals. However, Australia lacks native land mammals that can serve as rabies reservoirs.

The classical rabies transmission cycle involving domestic dogs and wild canids that occurs overseas is not present in Australia due to an absence of rabies and large wild canid populations.

Pet Vaccination and Public Awareness

There is a high level of rabies awareness and pet vaccination compliance in Australia. Urban dog rabies vaccination rates are estimated at around 70%. Rabies vaccines for dogs, cats and horses are readily available.

Ongoing public education helps ensure continued social responsibility and interest in maintaining Australia’s rabies-free status.


Extensive and long-standing rabies surveillance programs are in place to detect any incursions into Australia. Rabies testing is compulsory for all bats submitted for Australian Bat Lyssavirus testing. Oral swab testing of quarantined animals is also performed. Sentinel pig programs monitor population immunity along northern coastlines facing Indonesia. Additionally, public health surveillance detects any potential human rabies cases. Together these provide early warning of any rabies introductions.

What is the rabies status of nearby countries?

Most of Australia’s nearby countries in Asia and the Pacific have endemic rabies transmitted by dogs:

Country Rabies Status
Indonesia Endemic in dogs across most of the country
Papua New Guinea Dog rabies endemic across the country
Philippines Rabies endemic, >200 human deaths annually
Malaysia Sporadic dog rabies outbreaks occur
New Zealand Rabies-free currently but previously had bat rabies

This close proximity to rabies endemic areas increases risk of introductions to Australia. However, the combination of sea barriers and strict biosecurity has so far prevented any incursions establishing in Australia long-term.

Are there any rabies-related viruses in Australia?

There are two rabies-related lyssaviruses native to Australia:

  • Australian Bat Lyssavirus – Detected in both flying foxes and insectivorous bats. Rarely infects humans but is fatal if untreated.
  • Pteropid Lyssavirus – Identified in 2013 in a flying fox. Closely related to rabies virus but role in human disease is still unclear.

These native bat lyssaviruses appear to be host-adapted with spillover to humans very rare compared to rabies virus in bats overseas. But their presence means bat handlers are still at occupational risk of these related diseases.

Could rabies ever re-establish in Australia?

It is believed Australia has sufficient biosecurity measures to prevent rabies re-establishing a long-term foothold. However, experts warn against complacency as a potential rabies infiltration event is likely at some point in the future.

A 2007 risk assessment found:

  • The primary threat would be an infected domestic dog entering illegally or by avoidance of quarantine controls. This could spark an outbreak in the unvaccinated domestic dog population.
  • Establishment in urban areas is of greatest concern due to proximity to humans. Rural establishment is unlikely.
  • Ongoing quarantine, surveillance and public education are critical to prevent this risk.

Urban areas of northern Australia close to southeast Asia face the highest risk of rabies incursion. An outbreak in a major city could have devastating impacts if not contained swiftly. But Australia’s emergency response capability gives confidence that any sporadic infiltrations could be controlled before large-scale spread.


Australia’s enviable rabies-free status is attributable to its geographic isolation combined with rigorous biosecurity policies and rabies control capability. Preventing illegal imports and maintaining vaccination remains key to keeping rabies out long-term. But Australia’s response infrastructure should ensure any future incursions are rapidly extinguished before they endanger the general public.