Aussie tourist racks up $60k medical bill after innocuous bite

The cautionary tale highlights the importance of travel insurance for adventurous tourists

After a seemingly innocuous encounter an Australian tourist was forced to abandon her holiday plans in desperate pursuit of medical assistance, racking up $60,000 in bills along the way.

Sarah Lancaster from Tasmania was visiting Nicaragua and was excited to immerse herself fully during her trip, thinking nothing of petting a local cat in her hostel as others around her were doing the same. But it proved to be a very costly move.

“I was playing with the cat and it was pawing at me when it suddenly bit my left pointer finger. It was like a scratch with a puncture wound," she recalled.

It was unknown if the cat had been vaccinated against rabies.
Sarah was innocently petting the local cat (pictured) on holiday when it bit her. It was unknown whether it had previously received a rabies vaccine. Source: 1Cover

Despite cleaning the wound with water and being reassured by her Nicaraguan friend there was no cause for concern, Sarah became increasingly worried she may have exposed herself to rabies after no one in the hostel could confirm whether or not the cat had been vaccinated. She decided to seek advice from Australian health authorities.

The threat of rabies in dogs and cats

According to the World Heath Organisation, rabies is a viral disease which targets the central nervous system, and once symptoms appear is "virtually 100% fatal". It is most common for dogs to spread rabies to humans, however, other domestic and wild animals can transfer the disease through salvia from a bite or scratch. The disease is responsible for over tens of thousands of deaths every year.

Rabies is vaccine-preventable and treatment is available if an individual is believed to be exposed to a rabid animal by seeking post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).

After Sarah's travel insurer urged her to get PEP, it was determined she would not be able to receive the treatment in the Central American country and it was determined the United States was her best option. Thankfully, her travel insurance covered the cost of a flight to Florida and she promptly received the treatment she needed.

Sarah was able to stay with her friend who lived in the area and she said it would have been impossible to afford the treatment without the travel insurance, saying each shot was priced at US$20,000 (amounting to a whopping US$60,000 in total, or $A89,000 at the current exchange rate).

Sarah and her friend in hospital getting the rabies shots.
Sarah and her friend at hospital in Florida where she received the initial shots to protect her against rabies. Source: 1Cover

“I couldn’t believe the price of the shots. I definitely would not have been able to pay out of my own pocket,” Sarah says.

“Knowing that it was covered by my travel insurance put me at ease for sure," she continued.

A spokesperson for her travel insurer 1Cover said the situation was a prime example of why travellers should secure health insurance and shared advice on how to best avoid a similar fate.

"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. Take precautions around animals, no matter how cute and friendly," spokesperson Natalie Smith said.

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