Antivenom shortage puts hospital in a bind

August 11, 2002|by MARLO BARNHART

Last weekend, a nationwide shortage of antivenom affected Washington County Hospital officials who faced a shortage of the lifesaving remedy needed to treat a man believed bitten by a copperhead near Sharpsburg.

"We only had two vials of antivenom on hand until a shipment of four more vials came in Friday," said Gary Aziz, director of the hospital pharmacy. One patient with a venomous snakebite could easily use that much antivenom, he said.

"The normal supply we try to keep on hand is 12 vials," Aziz said.

As it turned out, the snake in the incident in the 18900 block of Burnside Bridge Road wasn't venomous, Aziz said. But the problem with the shortage could crop up again at any time.


So far in 2002, four of the 21 animal bites reported to Washington County Fire and Rescue Communications were snakebites, Deputy Chief Roy Lescalleet said.

Because of the antivenom shortage, hospitals are cooperating with each other.

"Just recently, we supplied antivenom to Frederick Memorial Hospital for a rattlesnake bite they had," Aziz said.

Rocky Mountain Poison Control and Maryland Poison Control have also lent assistance through the shortage, Aziz said. The toll-free number for Maryland Poison Control is 1-800-492-2414.

The main reason for the shortage is that one of two national pharmaceutical companies - Wyeth - stopped making antivenom in 2001, Aziz said. That left only Savage Pharmaceuticals, which makes CroFab antivenom, experiencing problems in its manufacture at a time when demand is at an all-time high.

Antivenom is produced by injecting a nonlethal dose of venom into certain animals and then extracting and purifying the antibodies that can neutralize the venom, Aziz said. Horses have been the common donors of those antibodies but strong side effects had health officials looking elsewhere.

CroFab uses sheep, which produce a milder product that is as effective, health officials said.

On a Web site devoted to snake bite avoidance and first aid, Greg Longhurst, a reptile specialist in Florida, suggests keeping yards well-manicured, wearing shoes in the outdoors, wearing gloves when weeding, donning leather boots while in snake country and watching where you put your feet and hands.

If bitten by a snake, remain calm, get to a hospital as quickly as possible, apply suction to the bite area, remove jewelry in case of swelling and attempt to identify the snake - preferably by bringing the dead snake to the hospital.

Health authorities agree victims should never cut the wound, use a tourniquet or put ice on a snakebite.

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