"Venom 1" Team Saves Snakebite Victims

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There are basically two antivenins for snakes native to the U.S.—one for pit vipers and another for coral snakes. The rest of the antivenins are for exotic snakes imported from Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and South America. Venom 1 receives a cobra call about once every month to every six weeks.

There are approximately 8,000 venomous snakebites in the U.S. every year; 250 are in Florida.

"Since the operation began, we have handled about 400 bites without a single fatality, even though a dozen people stopped breathing before we had arrived with the venom," said Cruz.

No Two Bites Are Alike

In Florida, about 65 percent of these bites are "illegitimate"—that is, they occurred while deliberately handling the snake. The other "legitimate bites" are endured while hunting, fishing, camping, and engaging in other outdoor activities. Curiously, the majority of bite victims are males between 20 and 36, Cruz said.

But even when it comes to venomous snakes, not all bites are deadly. About 30 percent of all bites are dry—that is, little or no toxin was injected. "Snakes can control the amount of venom they inject. For example, they can take three to four weeks to regenerate their venom stores if they have just killed prey," said Cruz. A bite from a snake in this condition could be dry. A hungry or angry snake is a different matter.

"As far as U.S. snakes are concerned, you have an average of about two hours before a bite becomes life threatening," said Cruz. "The trick is not to get agitated. Think of the bite as a broken bone and try to keep it immobilized and away from the heart."

"Everything you've seen in the movies, everything John Wayne used to do—don't do. Don't cut, suck, or ice the bite. Don't tie a tourniquet—all of these things just cause problems."

The problems caused by snakebites are as diverse as the snakes themselves. "No snakebites are the same—they depend on the species, the size, the age, and the snake's state of mind," said Dr. Roberto R. Del Cristo, a doctor of internal medicine and medical director of the Antivenin Bank.

Deadly Cocktails

Venom is a complex cocktail of at least 20 to 30 compounds each destroying different parts of the body, said Del Cristo. Hemotoxins attack the tissues and circulatory system, destroying blood-clotting agents, causing uncontrollable bleeding in the brain, eyes, and kidneys. They also digest tissue causing irreversible damage. Neurotoxins target the nervous system, paralyzing the muscles, leading to heart failure and suffocation.

With all the fear that snakes evoke, there are only about 15 fatalities per year, according to statistics from the University of Florida. "The trick is to remain calm," said Del Cristo. "We recently had a wonderful case where a 21 year old was bitten by his pet cobra, totally paralyzed and on a ventilator. But a few hours after the antivenin was given he was demanding food, and a day later he walked out of here."

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