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Deaths from caterpillars on the rise

By SUSAN MILIUS UPI Science Writer

WASHINGTON, Oct. 10 -- A woman in Brazil died after her arm brushed against a caterpillar, one of a growing number of people felled by cateprillars in South America, doctors said Thursday. The United States also has venomous caterpillars. The American Association of Poison Centers has reports of bad reactions such as skin rashes and blisters or a swollen leg, but no fatalities. In the Brazilian case, a 52-year-old woman felt a burning pain where her arm had brushed a caterpillar, reported Dr. Hui Wen Fan from Hospital Vital Brazil in Sao Paulo. Describing her death in the journal The Lancet, Fan said that at first she felt weak and developed a headache. During the two days following the caterpillar brushing, she began vomiting, and bruises appeared on her skin. By the time she was taken to a hospital, she was in a coma. Her blood had lost its normal clotting reaction but doctors discovered a blood clot lodged in her brain. Two days after she was admitted to the hospital, she died. Deaths caused by caterpillars were rare in South America until the 1980s, the doctors said. However caterpillars are now killing more people than snakes do in some parts of Brazil, especially in the south. In Brazil, one person dies out of every 200 bitten by snakes, according to The Lancet. The death rate among caterpillar victims is '3 to 6 times higher than that observed for snake bites,' Fan estimated. Most of the deaths come from a caterpillar species called Lonomia obliqua, which bristles with hairs containing a venom that keeps human blood from clotting, Fan reported.

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Brushing against these hairs brings on uncontrolled bleeding within 12 to 24 hours. He and colleagues called for public education about the caterpillar menace in regions with growing numbers of deaths. The United States has stinging caterpillars too, according to the University Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Among the more common species that clash with humans are the puss caterpillar (stout with poison spines under soft gray or brown hairs), the saddleback caterpillar (with a green back saddled by a brown oval), the io moth caterpillar (pale green with with reddish stripes) and the hag moth caterpillar (light brown with nine irregular brushes of stinging hairs). 'We have had patients with severe swellings, like a whole leg,' said Toby Litovitz, the executive director of American Association of Poison Centers. 'Usually someone's touched (a caterpillar) and had a dermal reaction,' she said. The center's data base has no record of caterpillar-related deaths in the United States.

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