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Nasties in Oz

When I blogged a passage from Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country a couple of weeks ago, I wrote that I would "have to fight the urge to blog something from it every day while I'm reading it." Seeing as how I've done so well and haven't blogged anything from it since, here goes with another anecdote.

One of the recurring themes of the book is Australia's preponderance of deadly creatures. Bryson writes this of the box jellyfish (Chironex fleckeri, also known as the marine stinger):

In 1992 a young man in Cairns, ignoring all the warning signs, went swimming in the Pacific waters at a place called Holloways Beach. He swam and dove, taunting his friends on the beach for their prudent cowardice, and then began to scream with an inhuman sound. It is said that there is no pain to compare with it. The young man staggered from the water, covered in livid whiplike stripes wherever the jellyfish's tentacles had brushed across him, and collapsed in quivering shock. Soon afterward emergency crews arrived, inflated him with morphine, and took him away for treatment. And here's the thing. Even unconscious and sedated, he was still screaming.
Unconscious and still screaming? I didn't know that was possible. The mind boggles.

Now, as the friend who gave me the book pointed out, it's pretty easy to avoid being killed by something nasty in Australia:

  • Don't try to kill snakes. Most people are bitten by snakes when trying to kill them.
  • Don't swim off the beaches of northern Australia during the months when jellyfish come onshore. Warning signs let you know when it's not safe to swim.
  • Don't swim or go near waters in northern Australia where saltwater crocodiles are found. Warning signs let you know where it's not safe.
  • If you get bitten by a spider, seek treatment. No deaths have been recorded from redback or funnel web spider bites since the introduction of antivenom.
As it happens, the most dangerous hazard in Australia isn't an animal, but rather the riptide. (See the previous entry on Harold Holt.) Again, warning signs will let you know when and where it's not safe to swim.

Something Bryson doesn't mention, but that an Australian might point out to an American, is that whereas deaths from poisonous creatures there are rare...

  • In the last 27 years, there have been 14 deaths due to saltwater crocodiles -- a rate of 1.9 0.52 deaths/year. (Thanks, Paul!)
  • The death rate from poisonous snakebite in Australia is estimated at 3.2 deaths/year.
  • Since 1884, there have been 63 known fatalities from box jellyfish -- a rate of 0.6 deaths/year.
  • In the last 50 years, there have been 58 deaths in Australia due to shark attack, a rate of 1.2 deaths/year.
...the US is really a far more dangerous place. After all, our murder rate was 5.6 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2002, whereas Australia's rate was 1.6.

Extrapolating from Australia's population of 20.1 million, an Australian visiting the US is 164 times more likely to be murdered than an American visiting Australia is likely to die from snakebite, jellyfish sting, crocodile attack, or shark attack.


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