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Hazardous Animal Life of Okinawa

By: Sheila J. Vaughen

Date Posted: 2000-08-18

While the natural beauty of the Okinawan islands is apparent at first glance, less easily discerned are potential dangers from a few species of native wildlife that are capable of harming their human neighbors. Newcomers to Okinawa are nearly always informed of the poisonous Habu snakes that inhabit the area. Less information is usually given about hazards from spiders, mosquitoes, centipedes and caterpillars. Bites and stings from some members of this group are capable of inflicting harm ranging from death, in rare cases, to minor skin irritations.

In this, the first of two articles on hazardous wildlife indigenous to Okinawa, terrestrial life will be reviewed. Next week’s article will cover potentially hazardous marine life.

Lieutenant (Dr.) Daniel Szumlas, head of the Medical Entomology Department at the Consolidated Preventative Medicine Unit on Camp Lester, discussed some of these insects and arthropods. He identified the Brown Widow spider as the most toxic spider of the area. Technically spiders are not insects but arthropods. This classification includes others creatures that feature exoskeletons and jointed legs such as crabs and centipedes.

The Brown Widow Spider

A cousin of the well-known black widow spider, the brown widow is similar to the black widow in behavior and toxicity. “All spiders are technically poisonous, but they are not all dangerous to humans,” explained Szumlas. As is the case with many toxic predators, the larger the animal, in this case a spider, the more dangerous the bite or sting.

The brown widow spider at adulthood is fairly small, spanning only up to one half inch in diameter. Like its cousin, this spider bears a red hourglass marking on its underside. Its legs will appear striped with light and dark brown bands.

A reclusive spider, the brown widow is not likely to bother humans because they usually remain hidden, preferring to live in dark, quiet spots. In addition to the common habitats of closets, sheds and beneath large furniture, they have also been found in vehicles. As many residents of Okinawa have discovered to their horror, bugs, including roaches and spiders see nothing wrong with setting up shop in a person’s car.

“If you have a cockroach problem in your home or vehicle, it would not be surprising to find spiders in there too,” explained Szumlas. If there is food for one type, there is likely to be food for another type of pest. He recommends placing baits in problem areas including vehicles, homes or offices, to handle the problem.

While reclusive and not particularly aggressive, bites from brown widows do occur, usually only when they are provoked or antagonized in some way. A typical scenario might be a child who attempts to prod or play with a spider, or a female that reacts to protect its egg sac. The egg sacs of the brown widow are slightly smaller than a green pea and have multiple spiky protrusions all around it.

If bitten by a brown widow, medical treatment should be sought right away. Szumlas added that it is actually very difficult for medical personnel to know with certainty if a person has been bitten by any spider. “However if symptoms are evident, especially if the victim is a child, it should be considered an emergency,” said Szumlas.

Symptoms include pain around the bite area typically beginning about an hour after contact with the spider. Systemic effects could include painful cramping of the chest and abdomen muscles, difficulty breathing and rapid respiration.

Mosquito Risks

Because of the presence of mosquito breeding grounds on Okinawa, there is always the potential risk of infection from a mosquito carrying the Japanese encephalitis virus. Pig farms and standing water, such as found in rice paddies, are typical draws for mosquitoes, including those that might be carriers of this virus.

While not currently requiring vaccinations against Japanese Encephalitis, U.S. medical officials on Okinawa have the vaccine available for US military and related personnel of the island.

The CPMU office at the Naval Hospital monitors the presence and numbers of infected mosquitoes of the island. “There are always at least some mosquitoes on the island that are carriers of the infection,” he explained. The greatest concentrations of carrier mosquitoes occur at the northern side of the island.

“While the JE virus can be fatal, the risk of contracting the disease and then also developing a serious reaction is actually quite low.” This is because not all persons react to the virus in the same manner. Szumlas said that the chance of being infected with JE after a mosquito bite is somewhat minimal. Infection will lead to acute illness in only one out of 200 cases.

Szumlas explained the effects of the last reported cases of JE infection by American personnel. “In 1991 three Marines who had been out near Camp Hansen, were infected. Of the three, the most serious reaction involved permanent brain damage; the second recovered but had an altered personality. The third recovered fully from the infection with no permanent effects whatsoever.”

“While the vaccination is usually mandatory for deployable forces, it is at this time voluntary for those residing on Okinawa.” People who may want to consider receiving the vaccination are those who live close to pig farms, those who spend a great deal of time on the northern side of the island in general, and those who camp frequently.

Simple means of protection against mosquitoes include: using repellant sprays; using bed netting when camping; and wearing clothing that covers arms and legs. Since mosquitoes feed during dusk hours, it is also recommended to avoid mosquito-attracting areas during these times.

Centipedes and Caterpillars

Another creepy creature, and arthropod, to avoid is the large centipede frequently seen throughout the Southeast Asia region. Known to get as large as 10 inches or more, this centipede is capable of biting and causing pain and discomfort.

They are not deadly, but as stated previously, the larger the animal the more toxic their bite. Its long segmented body, numerous legs, and claw-like legs that trail from its back end distinguish the tropical Asian centipede. The danger comes from their poisonous claws, or maxillipeds, at the head, which are capable of piercing human skin quite easily.

Centipedes and millipedes are more frequently seen at night. Avoiding them altogether is the best recommendation. However if bitten, treatment should include promptly disinfecting the area to prevent bacterial infection. Cold compresses may minimize swelling and pain relievers would be in order. In severe cases, medical treatment might involve injection of Novocain or like substances.

Less a threat than an annoyance, are caterpillars that can cause skin rashes and irritations. While most types of caterpillars are quite harmless, some species on Okinawa can release poisonous hairs into human skin causing sudden rashes. Persons coming into contact with vegetation, whether from a days trek in the wild or merely a minor brush from a shrub, could also come into contact with these bothersome hairs.

As before, some persons will react to this irritant in more severe ways than others will. Hypersensitive skin can become quickly inflamed with itchy and even painful rashes. Headaches and nausea can also accompany the dermatitis in some cases. It should be noted that the caterpillars do not have to be living to release the hairs, which become airborne quite easily.

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