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Wilderness Environ Med. 1997 Nov;8(4):226-31.

Widow spider envenomation (latrodectism): a worldwide problem.

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Department of Emergency Medicine, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, Nedlands, West Australia.


The objective of this study was to review widow spider envenomation on a worldwide basis, with an emphasis on regional variability in management, particularly between the United States and Australia. Data sources were the Medline database (1966-1997) for English language references using as key words widow spider, latrodectism, and red back spider, and Mesh headings. Textbooks of toxinology were also used. Studies involving clinical reports and series were selected. The data indicated that envenomation by widow spiders (latrodectism) is common worldwide. Local pain and sweating predominate, in about 25% of cases becoming generalized or developing in remote sites. The mortality in published series varies from 5% to 10%, although these may be overestimates. Australia may have the highest rate of latrodectism in the world. The literature reveals regional disparities in the treatment and outcome of latrodectism. In Australia, intramuscular antivenin has been used liberally for more than 40 years with a very low rate (0.5% to 0.8%) of allergic reactions and no deaths recorded since its introduction. Antivenin is routinely successful in relieving the effects of latrodectism. In the United States, the antivenin is given intravenously, is usually reserved for very severe cases, and the rate of allergic reaction is high (from 9% up to 80% in those skin testing positive). Deaths have been recorded after antivenin. The literature suggests that antivenin to one species of Latrodectus is likely to be effective against other species. The conclusion drawn was that latrodectism is a common envenomation worldwide. There is a strong case for a comparative trial of Australian vs US antivenin in treating latrodectism due to the black widow spider in the United States.

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