Throughout the course of his snake-handling career, Bill Haast has received hundreds of snake bites—20 of these encounters nearly killed him. For a normal man, these near-fatal experiences may have meant inevitable death. But Haast survived each fang by routinely injecting himself with venom for more than 60 years in order to build up his immunity.
Haast was born in 1910 and became interested in snakes at an early age. After getting married and raising a family, he opened the Miami Serpentarium, which produces snake venom for medical and research purposes. Between 1947 and 1984, he ran the facility as a tourist attraction and extracted venom from reptiles, including king cobras, in front of crowds of people up to 100 times a day. Haast would grab the snakes under their heads and drain the venom from their teeth into test tubes.
The snake handler estimated that he handled over 3 million poisonous snakes over the course of his lifetime, according to his obituary. Haast did everything he could to avoid being bitten, yet the sheer number of snakes he handled inevitably led to a bite now and then. By 2008, he had been bitten at least 172 times. During one of these encounters, his wife was forced to cut off his fingertip with garden clippers after a cottonmouth got a little too feisty.
In 1948, Haast started injecting highly diluted cobra venom into his body each week, eventually adding over 30 different types of venom into the mix in order to become immune to their venom. He even donated his blood to help other snakebite victims—21 to be exact. After aiding a young boy in Venezuela, the country made him an honorary citizen for trekking into the jungle to give the child a pint of his blood.
Haast, however, was not immune to all snake bites. In 1989, the Associated Press reported that the White House used its contacts in Iran to locate a rare antivenom to treat Haast after he was bitten by a Pakistani pit viper.
The world’s most famous snake handler passed away in 2011 at age 100 from natural causes.
The History of Antivenom
One of Louis Pasteur’s protégés, Albert Calmette, created the first antivenom in 1896. He injected horses with venom and then collected the antibodies to develop antivenom.
An estimated 7,000-8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the United States each year but less than one percent die, if they receive proper treatment. The common culprits are eastern diamondback—common in the southeast—and western diamondback rattlesnakes—common in the southwest.
But, even snake experts have fallen victim to venomous bites. American herpetologist Karl P. Schmidt died in 1957 after being bitten by a juvenile snake he acquired at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. The reptile, a boomslang, bit Schmidt on his thumb while he was processing it. Falsely believing it was a nonfatal dose of venom, Schmidt documented his symptoms, which included, nausea, fever, chills, and bleeding from his nose and mouth. He died within 24 hours from respiration paralysis and a brain hemorrhage.
A Venomous Price to Pay
In recent years, snakebite victims have been billed hundreds of thousands of dollars for antivenom. The wholesale price is currently $2,500 per vial, and patients can require sometimes dozens of bottles to recover.
In 2016, Dominic Devine, 10, was bitten by a venomous snake in Lake Mathews, California. His parents were initially billed $1.18 million for the treatment before the cost was reduced to $350,000 after an accounting error was uncovered.
One year earlier, Todd Fassler was bitten by a rattlesnake while attempting to take a selfie with it at the Barona Speedway racetrack in Lakeside, California. He received a bill for $153,000. In 2012, A UC San Diego exchange student from Norway was snapped by a rattlesnake and socked with a $143,989 hospital bill.
One reason why antivenom is rather costly is that only one brand—CroFab—is currently available on the American market. Antivenom is created by injecting sheep with snake venom and collecting the resulting antibodies created by the animal’s immune system. The manufacturing process is only one-tenth of one percent of the total cost, according to the American Journal of Medicine. The inflated price is due to clinical trials, legal costs, hospital fees, and regulatory constraints.
The good news is that a few years ago the FDA approved a new antivenom called Anavip to treat rattlesnake bites. It is scheduled for release in the United States in October 2018 and is expected to be a cheaper alternative.
Making Hiss-tory in Pain Relief
Haast came up with the idea to use venom to treat various illnesses, including polio, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. Scientists have developed two pain relievers containing elements of snake venom—Cobroxin and Nyloxin. These homeopathic products are used to treat a variety of problems including angina, asthma, headaches, back pain, and other maladies. These medicines are for those seeking alternatives to opiate-based analgesics.
There is also a medicine called Viprinix, also known by its generic name ancrod, which is derived from pit viper venom and is intended to be used as an anticoagulant. Doctors discovered the healing properties of the venom after realizing victims of Malayan pit viper bites did not clot “normally” for several days following an attack.
Researchers have studied its effect on stroke victims as well as those suffering from deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary hypertension, and other conditions. While Viprinix has undergone several clinical trials, it is not currently approved for medical use in any country.
By Noelle Talmon, contributor for Ripleys.com