Australia has a reputation for deadly animals, from man-eating crocodiles and sharks, to poisonous snakes and spiders, but the creatures most likely to kill you Down Under are not currently swimming off Bondi Beach and more likely found at home.
A landmark national study by University of Melbourne researchers into deaths from venomous bites and stings has found that bee and wasp stings, which led to an allergic reaction and anaphylactic shock, were responsible for more than half of the 64 deaths over the 11-year period surveyed.
“Injury trends from envenoming in Australia, 2000-2013”, published in the Royal Australian College of Physicians’ Internal Medicine Journal, examined fatalities, venomous stings and bites that led to almost 42,000 hospitalisations over the study period.
Of the 64 people who died, including one beekeeper, 27 were the result of a bee or wasp sting. Ticks and ants also proved deadly, accounting for another five deaths.
But you’re right to fear snakes, which matched the bees and wasps with 27 deaths. There were no deaths from spiders or scorpions during the study period. (A man died from a redback bite in April 2016, the first spider bite death in more than 30 years).
Three deaths were attributed to marine animals — box jellyfish — and two to an unknown plant or animal.
Sharks weren’t counted in the study because they’re not venomous but, for the record, 26 people died from attacks over that period.
While on that subject, it should be horses and not sharks we should be afraid of because nearly three times as many people, 74, died after being thrown or trampled by a horse over the study period.
And man’s best friend nearly matched sharks, with 23 dying following altercations with dogs.
Crocodiles took credit for 19 deaths.
Deaths from drowning
To put it in perspective, perhaps governments should be installing nets on beaches to stop swimmers getting in too deep rather than for catching sharks, with 4,820 drowning deaths happening during the study people.
Another 974 people died from burns.
Bees and wasps took the blame for just over one-third (33%) of hospital admissions, followed by spider bites (30%) and snake bites (15%).
Those seeking help were predominantly in the 30-44 age range.
Western Australia and South Australia had the highest number of recorded fatal stings and bites. Tasmania was the only place where no deaths were recorded. Bites and stings were most likely to occur between April to October.
But one of the fascinating insights appears to have come from what happens after the sting or bite.
It’s dangerous at home
More than half of the deaths (52%) occurred at home, and nearly two-thirds, 64%, occurred of the total major city or inner regional area, rather than remote locations. Nearly half, 48%, of anaphylaxis deaths were work-related.
While 74% of people with a snake bite made it to medical care, the bad news is those bites caused nearly twice as many deaths per hospital admission than any other venomous creature.
The other surprising figure is only 44% of cases involving anaphylaxis reached medical care prior to death.
Lead researcher Dr Ronelle Welton, a public health expert with the Australian Venom Research Unit at the University of Melbourne’s Department of Pharmacology, said more work needed to be done to understand why people were dying from bee stings at home.
“Bees are a ubiquitous creature that we are accustomed to seeing. Perhaps it’s because bees are so innocuous that most people don’t really fear them in the same way they fear snakes,” Dr Welton said.
Even if you’ve been stung previously without a reaction, that doesn’t mean an allergic sensitivity hasn’t built up subsequently. Co-author Professor Daniel Hoyer, head of University of Melbourne’s Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, said anaphylaxis can kill quickly.
“The number one surprise in this research is there are so many bites from insects,” Professor Hoyer said.
“The majority of serious envenoming incidents involved anaphylactic shock. I suspect the incidence of allergy is enormous in this country.”
Men are in danger
Men aged 30-35 are most likely to be on the receiving end of a bite or sting followed closely by the five to nine-year-old age group.
Professor Hoyer says that may reflect greater risk-taking behaviour.
“There is a massive discrepancy between men and women that starts very early,” he said.
“Even between the ages of zero and four-years, boys are suffering bites and stings more frequently than girls and this is across the age spectrum until 75 when it evens out. It could be that blokey culture is driving it.”
The thing that surprised Dr Welton most was that the majority of snake bite fatalities happened around residences within the major city or inner regional area.
“Don’t try to kill the snake. In numerous cases, that’s when people get bite,” she said
Queensland topped the list for snake bites. The problem in Tasmania was jack jumper ant anaphylaxis.
Dr Welton said that education needed to be specific to areas.
“When you look at how comprehensive awareness campaigns are about jellyfish stings in certain parts of Australia, compared to bee sting anaphylaxis which can happen everywhere, the public health approach is certainly not as focused,” she said.
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