Redback Spider Warning

Claim:   A man in Ireland killed by the bite of a deadly redback spider



[Collected on the Internet, August 2014]

I saw an article in a news paper about the deadly redback spider being in the uk. It was headlined with "KILLER TOILET SPIDER WARNING: Dad dies from deadly redback bite" alot of people on Facebook are freaking out so I just wanted to see if it's true or false.

Origins:   In August 2014 social media networks were abuzz with reprinted versions of a typically sensationalized Sun article ("Yes, the deadly redback spider is ALREADY in Britain — and could be LURKING under your toilet seat") about a 48-year-old man named John Francis Kennedy in Cork, Ireland, who reportedly was bitten on the neck by a "poisonous red-back" spider while watching a movie at home and died of "massive internal bleeding":

John Francis Kennedy, who went by the nickname 'JFK', suffered horrifying injuries as a result of the bite, and died last month from massive internal bleeding.

His wife Jeanne insists that his death was the result of a spider bite he got last year — and her description matches that of the deadly redback, which is one of the few spiders that can be seriously harmful to humans.

Sometimes known as the 'toilet spider', redbacks can be commonly found living under toilet seats.

The redback spider (Latrodectus hasseltii, also known as the red-striped spider, red-spot spider, and jockey spider) is a species of venomous spider indigenous to Australia, that typically lives in warm, sheltered locations, often in or around human dwellings. The redback is one of the few spider species whose bite does pose a significant risk to humans, as its venom can produce pain, muscle rigidity, vomiting, and sweating, and in some cases death:

Perched in its tangled web, the redback spider lies in wait.

She is a relative of the black widow; only the red dorsal stripe distinguishes them.

Redbacks are found everywhere throughout the Australian continent, especially alongside human habitation.

Only females build webs. Their smaller, less brilliantly colored male counterparts often lurk to the side.

Humans must be careful. The spider won't seek out people to sting, but should a hand stray into her web by accident, a trip to the emergency room may be in order as the venom acts directly on the nerves.

Only the female bite is dangerous, and their bites have caused some human deaths.

The redback possesses a potent neurotoxic venom. It does not hunt its prey, but instead waits for a tasty morsel to wander by and become entangled in its web.

Once the prey-usually a walking insect-becomes enmeshed in the redback's web, it's wrapped in silk. When it's time to eat, the spider bites down on its intended victim, injecting its neurotoxic venom. The venom paralyzes the insect, and digestive enzymes begin to dissolve the prey's insides.

Antivenom for redback spider bites has been available since 1956, and no known deaths directly attributable to redback bites have been documented in more than fifty years since then, which makes this latest case in Ireland quite a subject of interest. However, note that the victim's wife, Jeanne, stated her husband didn't die soon after being bitten by a spider; he had actually been bitten a year earlier, and then he experienced a long period of declining health with various symptoms before finally passing away in July 2014:

She said: "He got bitten. We found a spider with a weird red back.

"But the bite he got had bled very badly. We went through a roll and a half of toilet roll to try and stop it.

"Ever since his health went down.

"His stomach started swelling, they said it was his liver and his pancreas.

"His testicles also swelled up very bad."

Jeanne, 46, went on to describe how John's eyesight deteriorated and he started vomiting BLOOD.

He eventually died in hospital last month and an inquest into his death has begun — but Jeanne is already convinced it was the spider.

"It had to be down to that sting.

"He was in perfect health before the bite happened."

So there's as yet no certainty that John Francis Kennedy was actually bitten by a redback spider, which had not previously been sighted in Ireland, other than someone's year-old recollection of what the spider in question looked like. And even if that species of spider did deliver a bite to the victim, it's unproven at this point that his death was directly attributable to that bite. He may have died from something else completely coincidental to that bite, he may have been suffering from an undiagnosed medical condition that had already compromised his health and was exacerbated or compounded by the bite's effects, or he may have suffered an allergic reaction to the bite (rather than being killed by the venom itself) — a host of alternative explanations are possible.

Until additional (and less tabloid-sensational) details are provided about this case, it's far too early to claim this as a verified example of a redback spider bite death in Ireland. And for those locals who fear that such critters are taking up residence in the area:

Adam Faulkner, reptile keeper at Drayton Manor Zoo, said: "Redbacks would probably not be able to survive the British climate — but they could survive if they found a warm house to live in."

Currently there are no national records of redback spider sightings.

Last updated:   25 August 2014