Deadly Snakes, Insects Lurk in Iraq

For soldiers deployed in Iraq there's more to worry about than enemy fire. Danger could also be lurking underfoot, inside crevices or within clothing.

A bite from the local saw-scaled viper, for example, may seem harmless at first, but in days it causes a state called disseminated intravascular coagulation — or heavy bleeding from several sites of the body.

"Its bite is insidious. A soldier could pass it off as no big deal, but in two days, he's dying," said Tom Hudak, a snake specialist based in Rochester, N.Y.

Some Frightening, But Harmless

Poisonous snakes and scorpions are common in Iraq's deserts and experts caution that soldiers deployed there need to know which creatures they can brush off and which ones they need to worry about.

"If you're moving from rock to rock and are approaching a cave and you see a cave scorpion, it looks like something from a bad horror movie but it's harmless," said Hudak. "If you know it's harmless, then you can continue moving calmly."

Creatures that should be more cause for concern, besides the saw-scaled viper, include sand vipers (including the horned viper that burrows under the sand), whose venoms cause hemorrhagic bleeding.

The small but lethal death stalker scorpion stings twice. Its first sting is painful but not deadly, its second sting causes quick asphyxiation. The bite of the black desert snake leads to paralysis and suffocation. A bite from the spiky, worm-like giant centipede can cause severe pain that doesn't kill, but persists for several days.

Near Iraq's borders, other troubles lurk, including extremely lethal cobras that slither in northern Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Best Defense: The Combat Boot

Hudak is putting together a video presentation of this lethal line-up and hopes to aid U.S. troops by offering instruction on the fatal fauna. Tom Harkins, an entomologist with the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, says soldiers are already briefed in what to expect before they're shipped off to creature-laden territories like Iraq.

He said he knows of no U.S. soldier fatality from snake or insect bite during the Gulf War, although he says it's likely that some soldiers were bitten. Soldiers aren't issued their own vials of antivenin or any specialized clothing to protect against bites, but Harkins says the best defense against snake bites are a good pair of boots.

"Most snakes and insects bite low to the ground so the Army-issued combat boot offers great protection from the majority of snakes," said Harkins.

The Army advises keeping camp areas clean, since rodents can attract hungry reptiles. Hudak says shaking out clothing in the morning and looking before you roll over in the morning can also prevent bites.

"The animals are attracted to warmth and it gets cool at night," said Hudak. "So it's a good idea to give your surroundings a cursory glance to make sure you don't have company."

Harkins says these tips are included in Army briefings as well as general "snake-smart behavior."

"Our policy is don't mess with any snake. Just assume it's dangerous," he said. "Don't play with them and don't try and show off with one. That's when you get hurt."