FRIDAY, Aug. 6, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Little Miss Muffet takes a back tuffet to nobody when it comes to arachnophobia, but she's far from alone -- and that troubles experts who say spiders have been unfairly maligned for centuries by a web of outdated and outright false impressions.
Arachnids, big and small, are apparently so fearsome that they have been erroneously blamed for everything from plagues to "tarantism," a hysterical disorder centered in Italy about 500 years ago.
But the vilification of the spider didn't end with the Middle Ages. In the Aug. 7 issue of The Lancet, scientists point out how modern-day doctors are also guilty of unjustly blaming the spider, especially for necrotizing skin ulcers, or sores that develop and get infected.
"[Scapegoating of spiders] most commonly occurs in situations where a 'condition' is not understood and the cause is not known," said the article's author Dr. Geoffrey K. Isbister, who hails from Australia, home of the redback spider, a relative of the black widow. "Often what doctors and patients [want] is an obvious cause to blame; to not know is worse than knowing it is something (even terrible). So spiders are blamed for ulcers." Meanwhile, other causes for the disorder are ignored.
"Arachnologists in general are personally aware of the public's irrational fear of spiders," said Jeff Shultz, an associate professor of entomology at the University of Maryland. "This seems to be learned, because young children seem to be very open to spiders and enthusiastic to learn about them. Adults seem prone to arachnophobia."
According to the journal article and an accompanying editorial, usually there is little good reason for the attribution except geographical overlap, and sometimes even that's not enough.
Bites attributed to brown recluse spiders, for instance, occur all over the United States, even though the offensive organism is found only in the South and West, the journal stated. Similarly, the hobo spider has been blamed for bites countrywide, even though the spider was introduced from Europe and was never reported to be harmful there. Also, brown recluse spiders are blamed for dermonecrosis in areas where they are either very rare or have never been found.
Worldwide, there are only a handful of dangerous spiders, Isbister said, ranging from the life-threatening funnel-web spider of eastern Australia to the widow spider group (including the black widow and the redback), brown recluse spiders and Brazilian armed spiders, Isbister said.
Fear of some of these creepy crawlies is justified to some extent.
Young children have died within two hours of a funnel-web spider bite, for instance. "However, in the last century, there have been only 13 deaths and there are estimated to be only five to 10 severe cases each year. We also have had an antivenom since 1980, so it's a fairly small problem in real terms," Isbister said. "The rest really cause minor effects."
The redback spider, immortalized in the Australian folk song, "The Redback on the Toilet Seat," also deserves a healthy respect and distance. "My studies have shown that we in fact have underestimated the effects of redback spiders in the past decades," Isbister said. "Bites from redbacks (and other widow spiders, such as the American black widow) can cause severe pain that can last for 24 to 96 hours, and may be associated with nausea, malaise, headache and vomiting. . . Although not life-threatening, redback spider bites are pretty nasty, and we would see perhaps 3,000 to 5,000 cases per year across Australia."
The song does not perpetuate any myths regarding this arachnid's favorite hiding place, either. "Redback spiders love dark, dry places, and the outside toilet was a classic place for them to be. In the early 20th century many bites were reported on the genitals," Isbister added.
Indoor toilets have largely eradicated this problem.
If patients and doctors want to look for something really blameworthy, Isbister suggests wasps, bees and the modern motor vehicle. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in 2002, 42,815 people died in motor vehicle crashes in the United States. In 2001, there were 1,183 motor vehicle deaths in Australia. Also in Australia, between 1979 and 1998, 45 people died of bee or wasp stings. Only 26 deaths from spiders were recorded Down Under in the past century.
But this mysterious obsession with spiders may not succumb to the light of reason. "Why spiders and not ants, cars or flying pigs?" Isbister asked. "It continues to astound me that patients come in with some skin lesion and say it might be a spider; why not something else?"
For more on spiders worldwide, visit the Australian Museum.