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Nagoya doctor’s treatment research deflates overblown hype over fire ant venom

Chunichi Shimbun

Medical information on how to treat patients bitten by fire ants posted on a doctor’s website at a Nagoya hospital has garnered great interest by doctors nationwide.

Fire ants, an alien invasive species, were first spotted in late May in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, after the insect sneaked in via cargo shipped to the country. Since then many media outlets published reports alerting to the highly venomous bites of these ants.

During this period of heightened concern, scientists provided plenty of knowledge on fire ants’ biology and colony characteristics, but there had been scant information on the potential health impacts on humans.

So Hirotaka Ando, 39, an ER doctor at Nagoya Ekisaikai Hospital, scoured medical books and papers from overseas on fire ant bites, and then summarized his findings into a 21-page slide, which he used to brief colleagues at the hospital.

“Treatment for a red fire ant bite is the same as treating a hornet sting,” he explained to his colleagues at a meeting. This triggered a noticeable sigh of relief.

On the slide, Ando also said fire ant bites are a type of insect bite, not like those of poisonous snakes or pufferfish.

“Look out for shock symptoms and treat your patient calmly,” he wrote.

Since then, many medical facilities have asked for permission to repost the slides.

Nagoya Ekisaikai Hospital is located close to Nagoya port, where fire ants have been spotted, and if anyone were to be bitten, the patient will most likely be rushed to the hospital.

Since the fire ants are an invasive species, very few doctors in Japan know how to treat the bites.

Therefore, Ando on his personal time did some research, intending to share his findings with the rest of his staff.

That was when he came across “Minor Emergencies,” a 750-page medical book written by doctors in the U.S., where fire ants are widespread.

The book covers nonlife-threatening medical crises, such as bug bites and removing foreign objects that are stuck in ears. It also includes a section on treating red fire ant bites.

He read a few more medical papers published abroad and learned that a fire ant bite in and of itself is not lethal.

When a person is bitten, a substance similar to bee venom triggers anaphylaxis, an allergic reaction such as a rash on a small percentage of victims.

In extremely rare cases, some may experience severe anaphylactic shock, where they have difficulty breathing or lose consciousness. Anaphylaxis and severe shock can also occur when a person is bitten by a hornet or other insects.

Nagoya Ekisaikai Hospital established the first ER department in the Tokai region in 1978. It has plenty of experience treating anaphylaxis.

In mid-July, Ando posted how to treat fire ant bites on the Emergency Department of Nagoya Ekisaikai Hospital’s Facebook account.

It urged doctors to pay attention to acute symptoms that can occur roughly 15 minutes after a patient has been bitten and treat them with anti-allergy medication.

As of Sept. 8, the post has been viewed by 220,000 people, seven times more than any other posts.

“I didn’t expect such a reaction. I hope this will give (doctors) the medical knowledge to prepare for patients who have been bitten by red fire ants and alleviate their anxiety,” Ando said.

This section, appearing Tuesdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Sept. 15.