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Insect sting kills Mequon man

Sept. 5, 2012

A Mequon man was killed by an insect sting this week, one of only a few times such stings have proved fatal in Wisconsin in recent years.

Vladimir Novak, 46, was sitting outside in his yard Monday when he was stung by a bee or a wasp, said his mother-in-law, Mary Anne Balmer of Mequon.

"Almost immediately, he was on the ground and expiring," she said.

A neighbor who is a physician rushed over and tried unsuccessfully to save Novak, Balmer said. The Mequon Fire Department took him to Columbia-St. Mary's Ozaukee, where he was pronounced dead.

Ozaukee County Coroner John Holicek said the cause of death was anaphylactic shock, which can be a reaction to an insect sting.

Balmer described Novak as "a big healthy guy" who had been stung before without suffering severe reactions. She said his sudden death was "incomprehensible" to his family, including four children left without a father.

Holicek said it was only Ozaukee County's second fatal bee sting in his 23 years in office. In the other case, a child died after being stung by multiple bees, he said.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Health Services did not return a call seeking information on similar cases around Wisconsin. But Journal Sentinel archives show three sting-related deaths reported since 1995: a 72-year-old Waukesha County man attacked by a swarm of wasps in 2005, a 17-year-old girl stung by an unidentified insect in Pleasant Prairie in 2001 and a 68-year-old Fond du Lac man killed in a crash as he tried to drive himself to a hospital after being disoriented by multiple wasp stings in 1997.

Nationwide, about 90 to 100 people die every year from insect stings, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But that number could be understated because sting-related deaths are often mistaken for deaths from heart attacks, asthma attacks, sunstroke or other causes, said the agency and Milwaukee emergency room physician Matthew Arens.

Anywhere from 0.4% to 5% of the population is at risk for anaphylactic shock when stung, added Arens, who is associate director of emergency medicine at Columbia-St. Mary's Milwaukee.

Such stings most frequently come from wasps, particularly German yellow jackets and paper wasps attracted by picnic food and soda, said Phil Pellitteri, an entomologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"Bees have no interest in people food," Pellitteri said.

Although wasp stings typically peak near the end of a hot summer - and this was Milwaukee's hottest summer on record - "this is not a bad year," Pellitteri said.

Stings have been declining the past four or five years, reflecting a major decline in the German yellow jacket population, because of parasites and other factors, Pellitteri said. By contrast, stings jumped dramatically in the 1980s, after the aggressive yellow-and-black-striped wasps established a foothold in the state, ruining picnics and outdoor events, he said.

Novak is survived by his wife, Christine; children Austin, Misha, Sasha and Rachel; mother, Ella; and sister, Svetlana (Vladimir) Ioffe.

Visitation will be from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday at Schmidt & Bartelt Funeral Home, 10280 N. Port Washington Road, Mequon. Services will be at 11 a.m. Friday at the funeral home.

Man vs. insect

Here's some expert advice about dealing with wasps, bees and other stinging insects, from Milwaukee physician Matthew Arens, Madison entomologist Phil Pellitteri and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • How to avoid them: When outdoors, watch out for bees and wasps that may climb into an open can or bottle of soda or juice and sting inside your mouth. Stay away from garbage cans and keep food and beverages covered as long as possible.
  • How to kill them: Don't try to chase or swat at wasps and bees. Pellitteri recommends catching them in a butterfly net and then stepping on them.
  • What to do if you get stung: Try to remove the stinger with a fingernail or gauze, not tweezers. If you feel your throat tightening and your breath getting short after a sting, seek medical attention immediately. If you have had previous allergic reactions, carry an epinephrine auto injector, or EpiPen, to inject yourself.

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