July 19, 2013 -- The unexpected death of a Georgia woman is being blamed on a tiny ant.
Jenny Pomeroy, 65, died Monday after having a severe allergic reaction to the fire ant's painful sting, ABC affiliate WSBTV reported. She was CEO of Prevent Blindness Georgia, an Atlanta-based non-profit that provides vision screening and education about eye disease.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with Jenny's family," Drs. Scott Pastor and Amy Hutchinson, co-chairs for the organization, said in a statement. "This is a tremendous loss to the vision community and Jenny will forever be remembered as an innovative thinker and a selfless, dedicated leader in Atlanta and across the state of Georgia. We will miss her deeply."
The sting occurred last week at the pool of Pomeroy's Buckhead condo, according to WSBTV. She went into anaphylactic shock – a life-threatening, whole-body allergic reaction – and died in a hospital days later from complications.
"If you develop an allergic sensitivity to fire ant venom you can have an allergic reaction, which in the most severe case, can become anaphylaxis," said Dr. Stanley Fineman, an allergist with the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma clinic and immediate past president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
Noting that Atlanta has a "significant fire ant problem," Fineman said people with allergies should carry an epinephrine autoinjector, a device that can quickly drive life-saving drugs into the blood stream.
"But the best treatment is allergy shots," Fineman added, "because they're very effective at helping patients build a tolerance so that when they're stung again, they don't have a reaction."
Pomeroy knew she was allergic to fire ant stings and had been hospitalized before, WSBTV reported. She was also carrying an autoinjector at the time of the sting and her husband immediately called 911.
The deadly sting was also surprising because Pomeroy was "very aware of her surroundings," according to Laurie Irby, a coworker at Prevent Blindness Georgia.
"This is just so hard to believe and so unexpected," Irby told WSBTV. "It's a real shock. We're still just kind of reeling and figuring out what to do now."
Pomeroy had been CEO of Prevent Blindness Georgia for 17 years, according to the organization.
Insect stings send more than 500,000 Americans to emergency rooms every year, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, and more than 40 people die annually from insect sting anaphylaxis.
While the majority of stings come from wasps, hornets and bees, fire ants "may be the number one agent of insect stings," according to the Academy.
In people with fire ant allergies, a sting can spark hives and swelling distant from the sting site, cramping and vomiting, difficulty breathing and swallowing, and in severe cases, the deadly drop in blood pressure that comes with anaphylaxis.
Allergy shots containing small, increasing doses of the fire ant venom can help patients build up tolerance, according to Fineman. The shots are given weekly at first, then monthly during a "maintenance" period. The goal is to discontinue the shots after five years, Fineman said.
"It's a type of therapy that is disease-modify, meaning it changes your sensitivity so that you're no longer allergic," he said.
People with fire ant allergies are also encouraged to avoid exposure to the insects. And since insect repellants are ineffective against the bugs, the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology recommends the following precautions instead:
Avoid wearing sandals or walking barefoot in the grass;
Garden with caution, wearing shoes, socks and work gloves and steering clear from mounds;
Keep an epiephrine autoinjector handy in case of a sting.
A memorial service for Pomeroy is planned for July 31 at 11:00 a.m. at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta. Her family has asked that gifts be made in her honor to Prevent Blindness Georgia.