Jack jumper program saving lives by shaking allergies to the potentially deadly ant

 

Key points:

Jack jumper ants can be deadly to those who are allergic, and Tasmania has the highest density of the species

A clinical program that involves collecting thousands of ants from their nests, allows patients to be treated with tiny doses of the venom to desensitise them to the sting

During the 1990s there were four reported jack jumper deaths in Tasmania, but since 2001, when the program started, there have been none

A globally-unique program has been changing that, by training patients' bodies to stop being allergic.

 

The ants are found in most Australian states, but Tasmania has the highest density, and a sting is a nasty but inevitable fact of life for anyone who goes outdoors.

 

"We here in Tasmania are probably the world capital for dangerous ant-sting allergies," natural sciences collection officer at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Simon Fearn, said.

 

For those highly allergic, which is 3 per cent of the population, the anxiety of being stung can permanently affect their lives.

 

Anaphylaxis is the most severe type of reaction.

 

 

 

"We see people who have given up their hobbies like gardening and bushwalking or are considering changing jobs from being surveyors, builders and construction workers because of their ant allergy," Jack Jumper Allergy Program clinical coordinator, Anna Stubbs, said.

 

"To us, the best day of the working week is when someone has had a sting and they come in and they say 'I was stung and I haven't had an allergic reaction'."

 

During the 1990s there were four reported jack jumper deaths in Tasmania, but there have been none since the program started in 2001.

 

Staff from the program hunt down jack jumper nests to capture thousands of ants to manufacture venom.

 

Patients are then injected with the venom over a series of treatments to desensitise them to the sting.

 

'Odds are, you'll be bitten'

The jack jumper is a medium-sized black ant with orange pincers, known to hop as it walks.

 

In South Australia it is known as a 'hopper ant' and in Victoria a 'jumping jack'.

 

Its sting can cause severe local pain.

 

Mr Fearn said there were four species of jack jumper in Tasmania and it was hard to avoid the ant.

 

 

 

"You don't have to disturb a nest — jack jumpers can literally be just about anywhere in the bush.

 

"Odds are you're going to get bitten a few times during your lifetime."

 

He said jack jumpers liked the bush, but built nests in exposed, sunny places

 

"Anytime you partially clear land, that lets in the sun and creates edge habitat," Mr Fearn said.

 

"That's where you can get very, very large densities of nests, hundreds of nests in a small area."

 

Game of drones

Jack jumpers start life as an egg, turn into a grub, then a cocoon before hatching out as an ant, Mr Fearn said.

 

Most ants produced in the nest are non-reproductive females, or workers.

 

He said drones and queens were only produced at a certain time of the year.

 

"It's all carefully regulated with pheromones," he said.

 

"On a nice, calm, warm day without wind in late summer all the drones and queens leave the nest and fly off."

 

The drones die as soon as they mate with queens.

 

Queens then chew their wings off and wander around on the ground looking for a place to build a new nest.

 

Mr Fearn said the ants will only swarm and attack if a nest is disturbed.

 

 

 

Ant death leads to world-first program

A need for specialist jack jumper treatment in Tasmania had been on the radar of emergency doctors after caring for patients who had suffered anaphylaxis after being stung.

 

A bequest from the family of someone who died from a sting led to Dr Simon Brown undertaking a project to look into desensitisation.

 

Jack Jumper Allergy Program operations manager, Jenny Gudden, has been with the program for 13 years.

 

"I've seen it come from a small research project to being a well-established clinical program that's well-renowned throughout the world," she said.

 

In 2001 a clinical trial began with 70 patients and was deemed a success.

 

By 2019 the program had 350 patients in active treatment from across the state.

 

The program also provides venom concentrate in Victoria and South Australia where similar desensitisation programs have been set up.

 

 

 

In search of 'mega nests'

The program is the only producer of jack jumper venom in the world.

 

Manufacturing it is a laborious process, and requires staff to hunt down thousands of ants in the bush.

 

"We go out into bushland areas throughout Tasmania and we are looking for clusters of ant nests," Ms Gudden said.

 

Staff from the program enlist the help of volunteers and family members when it is time to hunt.

 

"People want to help, but it is risky," she said.

 

"The aim is to get as many ants as we can."

 

For one batch of venom, about 3,000 ants are required and that might mean dissecting 5,000 ants.

 

"We want big nests, we're talking mega nests," she said.

 

"We knock the top off it and they explode, they erupt out of them."

 

The ants are collected in dust busters and taken back to the hospital where they are frozen at minus 80 degrees.

 

Microscopes are used to remove the tiny sack of venom on the tail of the jack jumper.

 

There are several processes and quality control work, and the end product is a clinical grade venom used to start treating allergy sufferers in Tasmania, Victoria and South Australia.

 

 

'Thank you for changing my life'

Ms Stubbs is one of the friendly faces patients will regularly see when going through jack jumper treatment.

 

"There's no normal day in our clinic," she said.

 

The clinic will see 20–30 patients a day and takes referrals when someone has had a reaction to a sting and wants to discuss a treatment plan.

 

The youngest patients are five, and the oldest is 90.

 

The treatment involves a small injection in the arm.

 

Mild, moderate and severe reactions

Reactions to jack jumpers are categorised into mild, moderate and severe.

 

But, even a mild reaction can cause significant anxiety about futures bites, Ms Stubbs said.

 

Reactions can differ from painful local reactions, to throat swelling and a hoarse voice and cough.

 

Other symptoms can include severe diarrhoea and vomiting.

 

"That's a difficult symptom to associate with an insect allergy," Ms Stubbs said.

 

Ms Stubbs said the patients were highly motivated, and wanted to beat their allergy.

 

Patients come in for different stages of treatment, which might include weekly appointments early on, or for maintenance over a five-year period.

 

"The best day is when we have treated patients and they've had their first wild sting and they are ok," she said.

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