Rabid otters, flying fish, brain-eating amoebas: Here's how Florida can kill you
Posted July 22, 2018 6:07 p.m. EDT
Many people know that Florida is one of the more dangerous places to live in terms of intense tropical weather. We're one of the world's most hurricane-vulnerable regions (80 indirect storm deaths in 2017), and often noted as the lightning capital of the United States (six deaths so far this year).
And while relatively rare, it probably won't be a surprise that Florida leads the nation in fatal alligator encounters (25 documented since 1948), and leads the world in shark attacks (31 in 2017, but the last fatality was 2010).
Sharp-toothed predators and monster storms aside, there are a number of ways natural Florida might kill you that are less obvious and less common. While not impossible, the chances you'll die by from any of these are extremely slim.
Let's start with wildlife that's not even alive anymore.
On Tuesday, a man died after eating raw oysters at a Sarasota restaurant that contained Vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria found in undercooked shellfish and warm coastal waters. It has killed 24 people in Florida since 2016, and you don't have to eat it, you can get it from swimming in warm ocean waters with an open wound, the Florida Department of Health says.
More rare is Ciguatera, a neurotoxin that can come from eating large coral reef fish such as grouper, red snapper, barracuda and hogfish that ate smaller fish that ate a certain kind of algae. It's very rarely fatal, but aside from gastrointestinal distress, the classic symptom is that cold things feel hot to the touch to the point of "burning," according to Florida Poison Control.
Some threats in the water are nearly invisible. Anyone who swims in a Florida lake or river takes the small risk of a "brain-eating" Naegleria fowleri amoeba crawling up their nose and killing them in about a week. Infections are rare -- there were 34 cases in Florida from 1962 to 2015 -- but research suggest the amoebas are quite common in Florida waters. They just don't find human nostrils that often.
Then there's leaping fish, particularly Gulf sturgeon on the Suwannee River. The sturgeon are covered in bony plates and can weigh hundreds of pounds. When they come into the river to spawn, they leap into the air and collide with boaters with occasionally deadly results.
Generally speaking, doing the stingray shuffle between April and October will save you from a non-fatal, but excruciatingly painful stab from the animal's barbed, venomous tail. But in 2006, it was a stingray that jumped out of the water near Lighthouse Point and fatally stabbed a boater in the heart. Two years later, a 75-pound stingray leapt out of the water in the Florida Keys and struck a woman in the head, killing her. A few years after that, a kayaker in the Keys nearly died when a jumping needlefish punctured her lung.
Back on land, contracting rabies is almost always fatal. After raccoons, the most common carriers in Florida are bats, like the one a woman found clinging to her arm in Sun City Center on Monday. She had received a pre-rabies treatment and was not expected to develop the virus.
Most of us would rather avoid bats, rabid or otherwise, but in Florida you can't rule out the possibility of being pursued by a cuter, though arguably more dangerous, rabid otter, such as the one suspected of terrorizing kayakers on the Braden River in March or attacking a 96-year-old Venice man in 2010. If you're treated quickly after contact with a rabid animal, you'll be okay.
A study at the University of Nebraska ranked Florida second, only behind Texas, in frequency of wild pig attacks, and found 15 percent of those to be fatal. The state's rural areas are filled with the 300-pound feral hogs, but they can also be found in undeveloped areas not far from downtown Tampa and tearing up lawns in exurban Wesley Chapel. Rhesus macaque monkeys living near Ocala carry potentially deadly herpes B virus, though there have been no cases of transmission to humans.
Florida is home to six species of venomous snakes, including the water moccasin, coral snake and pygmy rattlesnake, which are all found in Tampa Bay. The most dangerous is the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, also found locally, but all except the pygmy could potentially kill you without treatment.
You've got native brown widow, red widow and black widow spiders, which deliver an extremely painful bite that can cause seizures and kill someone small or in poor health in the most extreme circumstances. There are also three kinds of venomous non-native recluses. The brown recluse, whose bite can turn into a large, necrotic wound, has been spotted more often, but the Chilean recluse, linked to deaths in South America, has been seen in Polk County, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture.
A more slow motion threat could be the invasive giant African land snail that has spread throughout South Florida and can carry the parasitic rat lungworm. No Floridians have contracted rat lungworm, but when humans have been infected, it has led to potentially fatal meningitis.
One of the most widespread and poisonous of Florida plants might be the invasive chinaberry tree, said Chris Marble, an assistant professor and weed scientist at the University of Florida. Usually pets or children are affected, but in 2001, a 47-year-old man from Kentucky munched on them throughout his stay at a Kissimmee resort with deadly consequences. Other Florida plants poisonous enough to kill you include mistletoe berries (Merry Christmas) and the rosary pea, a type of vine with extremely poisonous but pretty seeds that have at times been used to make jewelry.
Sometimes it's literally the land that kills.
A 2007 study in the New England Journal of Medicine documented seven deadly episodes of "recreational sand hole collapse" in Florida over a 16-year period. That's where people visiting the beach dug deep holes in the sand only to have them collapse and bury them. The phenomenon killed more people worldwide over that time period than shark attacks.
The water is much more dangerous. Sixteen people have died in rip currents in 2018 off the state's Gulf and Atlantic beaches.
New sinkholes open in Florida all the time. They're rarely deadly, but in 2013 a Seffner man and everything in his bedroom were sucked underground when a giant one opened under his house. He was never found.
Florida is hot, and according to a report released by Climate Central in 2016, has the most metro areas on track to see a 100-plus "danger days" annually by 2050, when the combo of heat and humidity will push the heat index to at least 104 degrees. It's hard to track how many people die from the heat specifically, but it can trigger a whole host of health problems.
Same for theme park rides. They're safe, but there's a reason they have warnings about pre-existing medical conditions. Florida's parks track every incident leading to at least an overnight hospital stay in a quarterly report. Five people have died after going on Orlando-area rides since 2014, though the reports are mostly a collection of people who tripped and broke a bone or felt dizzy after a ride. The most recent report, out this month, lists a woman who went into labor on the Kilimanjaro Safaris at Animal Kingdom and a man with pre-existing conditions who passed out after Mission: Space at Epcot.
But, just like the rest of the country, Floridians are most likely to die from heart disease, cancer or unintentional injuries, including car crashes.