The rattlesnake bite was quick and sharp. Nine-year-old Sydney barely knew what hit her. In July, she was walking barefoot along a path at a friend’s cottage on an island in Georgian Bay when the young snake bit her ankle.
In severe pain and bleeding, Sydney was rushed first by boat and then by car to the West Parry Sound Health Centre (WPSHC), one of the few hospitals in Canada that carry the rare anti-venom that can save lives. Sydney survived after being treated intravenously with 12 vials of the anti-venom.
But now Ontario is out of anti-venom and the next person to be bitten by a rattlesnake may not be so lucky. “Can you imagine if we lose a child to snake bite because there is not enough anti-venom? That is crazy,” says Dr. Terence Fargher, an internist at WPSHC and one of the country’s leading experts on treating rattlesnake bites.
The anti-venom, called CroFab, is expensive to make; it involves injecting rare snake venom into sheep in New Zealand, withdrawing the serum and then purifying it at a special plant in the U.K. It is not only expensive (it can cost up to $35,000 to treat a major snake bite), it is also extremely perishable. The drug only lasts three years, and that is why hospitals don’t want to order too much of it, only to throw it away.
Up until two years ago WPSHC was the provincial depot for anti-venom, but due to funding issues, each health area now has to order its own supply. WPSHC started the summer with 64 vials of CroFab, and all are gone now. One patient of Fargher’s required 18 vials; he was very sick: vomiting blood within 40 minutes of being bitten. Fargher blames the minister of health for the shortage. “It is not fun sitting in the emergency with a lack of anti-venom. Any reasonable politician would have made sure this wouldn’t happen.”
The issue is critical because August is usually the busiest time for rattlesnake bites as the snakes move around, looking for mates.
The only poisonous snake in the province is the Eastern Massassauga, which lives on the southern shores of Georgian Bay, on the Bruce Peninsula, as well as around Windsor and the Niagara Region. Rattlesnake bites can also be an issue at hospitals near zoos.
The drug is on special order from the manufacturer, and is scheduled for release in mid-August.
If you are in any of the areas where rattlesnakes live, take these precautions:
- Wear ankle-high footwear
- Use a flashlight at night
- Listen for the rattle
- Do not pick up or attempt to capture a rattlesnake