The Ills of Rattlesnake Pills

in Infectious Diseases/Public Health by

In the weird news section of the day, comes this one: child falls sick with lethal salmonella infection after consuming rattlesnake pills.

Yeah, you got that right. Someone was feeding a child rattlesnake meat, all dried up and powdered, in the form of pills, hoping something miraculous woould happen. This media release from the CDC retains a stiff upper lip while proclaiming:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment have linked one person’s SalmonellaOranienburg infection to taking rattlesnake pills. Rattlesnake pills are often marketed as remedies for various conditions, such as cancer and HIV infection. These pills contain dehydrated rattlesnake meat ground into a powder and put into pill form. CDC recommends that you talk to your health care provider if you are considering taking rattlesnake pills, especially if you are in a group more likely to get a severe Salmonella infection.

I do not know what you (assuming the reader is a medical care provider) would advise, but I would, for sure, be asking my patients to abstain from consuming rattlesnake pills!

There have been anecdotal evidence linking the consumption of reptile meats with Salmonella, and a long time ago, I remember blogging about the rise of exotic reptilian pets as one of the drivers behind the rising number of Salmonella infections in the UK. My incredulity is no less now that I discover that another reason for this affliction is the intentional consumption of something that is basically a placebo!

The ABC News quotes an Infectious Disease researcher who shares my sentiment of disbelief and general aghastness at this news. Here is what they state:

John James, a microbial epidemiologist at Children’s Hospital in Denver, said the life-threatening strain of bacteria — Salmonella arizonae — in capsules of dried rattlesnake meat caused a child to become seriously ill. The child survived.

James talked about that case and the overall issue on Saturday at the annual scientific sessions of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America in Baltimore.

“Anecdotal evidence linking capsules of dried rattlesnake meat to salmonella poisoning has been reported for years. For the first time, however, we’ve used DNA molecular testing to prove definitively that the salmonella bacteria found in the dried meat was the cause of a life-threatening case of salmonella blood poisoning in a patient treated at our hospital,” James said in a prepared statement.

Salmonella arizonae is commonly found in snakes and lizards.

“Unfortunately, the rattlesnake capsules — believed by some to treat many types of diseases — are often given to people whose immune systems already are compromised,” James said. The child in this case had systemic lupus.

“These capsules should be removed from the market, or the manufacturers should be required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to irradiate the product before it is sold,” James said.

I think they should be banned outright!

Anyway, another interesting observation I made while reading this piece is the fact that the incriminated serovar is called Oranienburg, which is a city in Prussia. This was one of the first places in Prussia where the Nazi Germans established a concentration camp when they were usurping power in 1933. This facility was meant for a very specific demography according to Wikipedia, which states:

 It held the political opponents of German Nazism from the Berlin region, mostly members of the Communist Party of Germany and social-democrats, as well as a number of homosexual men and scores of the so-called undesirables.

The prison was taken over by the SS on 4 July 1934, when the SA was suppressed by the regime. It was closed and subsequently replaced in the area by Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1936. At closure, the prison had held over 3,000 inmates, of whom 16 had died.

For documentary purposes the German Federal Archive often retained the original image captions, which may be erroneous, biased, obsolete or politically extreme.

Coming back to the issue at hand, to summarise, if you are going to consume dried rattlesnake meat powder, I have just one word for you: DON’T!

Skeptic Oslerphile, Scientist at the Indian Council of Medical Research, National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases. Interests include: Emerging Infections, Public Health, Antimicrobial Resistance, One Health and Zoonoses, Diarrheal Diseases, Medical Education, Medical History, Open Access, Healthcare Social Media and Health2.0. Opinions are my own!

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