A new study released in the latest issue of Wilderness & Environmental Medicine shows that animal encounters remain a considerable cause of human harm and death.
For the study, Stanford University researchers analyzed fatalities in the U.S. from venomous and non-venomous animals from 2008 to 2015. They found that while many deaths from animal encounters are potentially avoidable, mortality rates did not decrease from 2008 to 2015. The animals most commonly responsible for human fatalities are farm animals, insects (hornets, wasps and bees) and dogs.
In a follow-up to a previous study looking at data from 1999 to 2007, the researchers used the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention’s Wide-Ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research (WONDER) database to collect data by the type of animal and the individual's age, race, sex and region where each fatality occurred.
They found that from 2008 to 2015, there were 1,610 animal-related fatalities in the U.S., with the majority of deaths being the result of encounters with non-venomous animals (57%).
“From this search, we found that the rates of death from encounters with animals has remained relatively stable from the last time we preformed this analysis (1999-2007),” said lead investigator Dr. Jared A. Forrester with the Stanford University department of surgery. “Importantly, most deaths are not actually due to wild animals like mountain lions, wolves, bears, sharks, etc., but are a result of deadly encounters with farm animals, anaphylaxis from bees, wasps or hornet stings and dog attacks. So, while it is important that people recreating in the wilderness know what to do when they encounter a potentially dangerous animal, the actual risk of death is quite low.”
During the study period, there were about 86 deaths annually from venomous animal encounters. This is up from 79.5 in 1999-2007, 69 in 1991-2001, 60 in 1979-1990 and 46 in 1950-59. The most lethal venomous animal encounter remained stings and subsequent anaphylaxis from bees, wasps and hornets, despite the availability of life-saving treatment for anaphylaxis. “Africanized” honeybees may be particularly lethal when they swarm and are increasingly common in the southern and western U.S.
The most common non-venomous encounter group in the study was “other mammals,” which includes cats, horses, cows, other hoof stock, pigs, raccoons and other mammals. Previous studies determined that the majority deaths associated with “other mammals” occur on farms and that horses and cattle account for 90% of farm accidents.
“Preventing potentially fatal farm animal encounters should be a better promoted and supported public health initiative,” Forrester explained. “Farming remains an industry with a deficit of work-related injury reporting, and opportunities exist to improve safety measures and injury reporting on farms in the U.S.”
Accounting for around 201 deaths annually, mortality resulting from animals is a public health area of interest. Each year in the U.S. alone, more than 1 million emergency room visits and approximately $2 billion in health care spending are attributable to problematic animal encounters. Deaths and high medical costs both could be reduced through education, prevention methods and targeted public policy.
Understanding the underlying reasons for why people die from animal encounters may help prevent them in the future.
“Unfortunately, deaths due to human/animal encounters did not decrease from our prior study. Animal-related deaths in ‘controllable’ situations, such as on the farm or in the home, still account for the majority of the deaths. Little in the way of public health policy in the farm workplace has changed since our previous paper,” Forrester concluded. “Increased specificity in the coding of deaths due to animals in farm environments would help public health professionals target interventions."