"You want a babies injection?" asked the receptionist at my local GP surgery. "No," I explained as calmly as I could. "Not a babies injection, a rabies injection." "Oh ... I don't know about that," she said. "I'll have to check. Call back at six."
Two days earlier, at the end of a weekend trip to Bucharest, I had been walking through the city when one of the many stray dogs bit me - not badly, but hard enough to draw blood. I didn't really want the hassle of a trip to hospital, and I'd heard some horror stories about the Romanian ones. But then again, hospital was preferable to rabies. Virtually unheard of in the UK now, it still kills 55,000 people each year globally.
It is a particularly horrible way to die: within a week, sufferers become anxious and disorientated, developing an overwhelming thirst paired with an inability to swallow. Delusions, hallucinations and deranged behaviour (including thrashing, spitting and biting) follow; it usually takes another week or so before heart and lung failure lead to total paralysis, coma, and finally death. And once symptoms start to develop, rabies is nearly always fatal. So I was ready to put up with substandard treatment - I just wasn't prepared for quite how bad it turned out to be. And I didn't expect to find the NHS doling it out.
Dogs are a major nuisance in Bucharest. The rehousing programme during Nicolae Ceausescu's dictatorship forced many families to abandon their dogs, and now the city is home to about 200,000 strays. On average, strays bite 50 people a day; some of them carry tetanus and/or rabies. The city council has announced a couple of culls in recent years, but these programmes have never been extensive enough to tackle the problem. Fortunately, because the risk of being bitten is high, the city's hospitals are well set up to deal with the victims. The nurse I limped up to in Spitalil Colentina's anti-rabies unit spoke a little English, and within half an hour I'd been bandaged up, given shots for tetanus and rabies, and was out of the door with a prescription for antibiotics and directions on what to do when I got home. The days when rabies was treated with painful injections in the stomach are long gone; now you just need a series of five shots in your arm over the space of a few weeks. Easy.
The nurse gave me a leaflet containing information about the vaccine for my doctor in the UK. The entire service was free of charge.
As soon as I returned to London, I phoned NHS Direct to find out where to get my first follow-up shot. I was given the names of two NHS walk-in centres and a private Medicare centre before I was told that I could also see my GP.
"We don't do rabies," the receptionist at the first walk-in centre told me. "Tetanus we do, but not rabies." I called the second one. Then I tried again an hour later, and again an hour after that. Eventually I accepted that they weren't going to pick up, but I wasn't quite ready to accept the idea of paying for a treatment that I could get for free on the far side of the continent. So I skipped the Medicare option and phoned my doctor. Maybe I should have taken them up on that offer of a babies injection: I might actually have got somewhere if I had. When I called back at 6pm, the phone was engaged, and it stayed that way until the surgery closed at 6.30pm.
Stuck for what else to do, I called the hospital closest to my office, St Thomas's in central London. Could they help me? The A&E receptionist was not keen. "Why didn't you call NHS Direct?" "I did," I explained, "and none of the options they suggested could help me. So now I am calling you, because I may have been exposed to rabies, and rabies is a life-threatening disease." "Where do you live?" I told her. "We're not your nearest hospital then, are we? You should have called the Royal London . . ." She was gracious enough to put me through to a doctor anyway.
"Yeah, we can do a rabies injection," the doctor told me. "But we shouldn't have to, really - you should be going to your doctor, because it's a community issue." I didn't ask why Romanian stray dogs are a community issue for Hackney Council.
So far, so incompetent. But the dismal service I'd received had nothing on what came next.
At A&E the next morning, I told the doctor what had happened, and about the five jabs the nurse in Bucharest had said I'd need. I didn't mention the antibiotics I'd been given for the wound itself; neither did he. Half an hour later, a student nurse appeared with a small syringe and the information leaflet from the vaccine, which she handed to me. She gave me the shot and smiled, "That's it! You're fine now." Really? What about the further three injections I'd been told I should have? "Oh, foreign hospitals are usually a bit overcautious with British patients. They're scared we'll sue." She assured me that I didn't need any further treatment, and that I was free to go. So I did. And I had got as far as the door when the doctor rang my mobile. He hadn't told the nurse to let me go, but since I already had, he just wanted to remind me that I'd need to see my GP for the remaining three shots.
I was confused - the nurse had said I didn't need any more treatment. "Did she? Oh, uh, then that's right." "Are you sure?" "Yes." I wasn't. But as I had the vaccine information leaflet, I could check: and like the Romanian one, it said I needed three more doses. (Not surprising, really, as that's the WHO's recognised regimen for rabies.) Why had the doctor needed me to tell him the dosage? When I went back to A&E and spoke to him, I discovered what had caused the confusion: he hadn't even read the information leaflet. And quite clearly, neither had the student nurse.
Rabies is hardly the UK's most pressing health issue, but the Health Protection Agency still treats about a thousand travellers each year who have been exposed to the disease abroad. Its line on treatment is unequivocal: as rabies is a fatal condition, the only available precaution - vaccination - must be used. The substandard treatment I received has serious implications for everyone who uses the National Health Service. In the end, my health was fine, but that doesn't excuse the level of service the NHS offered me. Being misheard, misinformed and passed from pillar to post is bad enough. But for two members of hospital staff to handle a less-than-everyday complaint by dishing out medication and advice without checking the facts is completely unacceptable, and potentially very dangerous. I contacted St Thomas's to ask for an explanation, but it was not prepared to comment unless I made a formal complaint.
According to research by the National Patient Safety Agency last summer, I'm not alone in receiving such poor service: almost 25,000 patients a year receive the wrong treatment in British hospitals. Whether the result is serious harm or just frustration and inefficiency, this is a pretty appalling track record. So, if you're looking for efficient, safe health care, try Romania. You might be less likely to end up foaming at the mouth.