Snakebite Threat Lags in U.S., but Still Remains

"I feel pretty good, considering what happened," said 21-year-old Eric Couch of Hazard, Ky., as he recovered at the University of Kentucky Medical Center on June 30. "It's a sucky experience, I can say that."

Couch, who works in salvage, was bitten on his left hand by a copperhead rattlesnake while moving some bricks. The strike was laden with venom -- a fact that soon became clear to Couch.

"After it bit me, it took it about 15 minutes for it to kick in," he said. "I felt like I was higher than a kite. I was wobbling all over, and everything was going in circles."

Couch immediately went to the hospital, where treatment for his bite began. He was later transported to the University of Kentucky Medical Center for further treatment.

Fortunately, Couch's quick thinking saved his life. But the bite came with serious potential consequences.

"They said two things could have happened: It could have caused me to get my hand amputated, or it could have killed me," he said. "So I said, 'Let's get this taken care of; I don't want to get my hand amputated, and I'm not ready to die.'"

Other Countries Outpace U.S. in Snakebites

While Couch's experience was harrowing, it is fortunately one that relatively few people in the United States will experience. Between 7,000 and 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the U.S. every year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, only about 1 in 500 will die from the bite they receive. In fact, deaths by snakebite rarely exceed 10 in any given year in this country.

Such is not the case throughout the rest of the world. In a study released Monday in the journal PLoS Medicine, Sri Lankan researchers said a conservative estimate is that 421,000 people worldwide fall victim to poisonous snakebites each year -- and at least 20,000 die.

But the study authors noted that the figures could run as high as 1.8 million venomous bites -- and 94,000 deaths.

Many of the bites occur in countries like India, Sri Lanka and Vietnam -- countries that not only have larger populations of venomous snakes, but which also have poorer rural populations that may not have access to proper emergency medical treatment.

Dr. Ryan Stanton -- the emergency medicine physician who treated Couch at the University of Kentucky Medical Center -- said that, by contrast, care for snakebites in the U.S. is nearly always close by. He added that, even though medical centers in the U.S. see a fairly large number of snakebites every year -- "and there are a lot of bites we don't see," he notes -- only a few of these victims die if they are treated quickly.

"So, this is a very low-fatality event; it's very rare for someone to die," he said. "But it is certainly severe enough for someone to die."

Although most who are bitten do not die, venomous snakes are widely feared. Ed Smith, a biologist at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C., has had his own experience with being "envenomated" -- what most would call getting bitten by a poisonous snake.

In Smith's case, the snake in question was a rattler.

"I was in my early 20s and working at a zoo," he recalled, adding that, because of his relatively young age and good health, "It was a very good time for a bite."

Good time or not, Smith said the bite was extremely painful -- "like sticking a soldering iron in your arm and keeping it there for however long," he chuckled.

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