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Rattlesnake Pills Responsible for Salmonella Infection in Kansas

A Salmonella infection in a Kansas resident has been linked with the consumption of rattlesnake pills.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released an alert informing the public of the culprit behind a Salmonella infection reported in Kansas: rattlesnake pills.

Ingestion of rattlesnake pills—which are comprised of dehydrated rattlesnake meat grounded down into powder and put into capsule form—is a frequent practice in Mexico, as they are thought to contain curative properties for various ailments and diseases, such as cancer or HIV. However, there is no proven evidence that the pills have any medicinal value, and, as shown in the case of the individual living in Kansas, consuming them can lead to bacterial infections.

Reportedly purchased in Mexico, the Kansas individual consumed them a week prior to being diagnosed with a Salmonella infection. Whole genome sequencing “showed that the Salmonella that made the person sick matched the Salmonella found in rattlesnake pills from Mexico collected in an earlier, unrelated investigation,” according to the statement.

This isn’t the first time that bacterial infections have been linked to the consumption of rattlesnake pills. For example, rattlesnake capsule-associated Salmonella Arizona infections have sprung up in Los Angeles, California, in the past. Those infections inspired some investigators from the department of Medicine in the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center to conduct a survey to see just how widespread the use of these pills was, and the reasons individuals gave for consuming them.

For the survey, investigators questioned 200 outpatients seen in a county hospital located on the US-Mexican border, R. E. Thomason General Hospital, which is known to serve the indigent population of El Paso, Texas. Investigators asked participants if they were familiar with the folk remedy; if they were, they asked why people chose to take the pills, and if they or anyone they know had taken them before. The majority of the patients questioned were Hispanic and ranged in age from 17 to 83.

The findings? One hundred and fifty-six out of the 200 patients had heard of the folk remedy (i.e. using the pills to treat certain illnesses). “These represented 82% (146/177) of Hispanic patients and 43% (10/23) of non-Hispanic patients,” according to the correspondence. Furthermore, 67 of the 200 participants reported knowing someone who had taken the pills or having ingested the pills themselves. The most common reasons for doing so were to help treat 1 or more of the following: skin conditions, arthritis, stomach problems, blood diseases, cancer, infections, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, “nervous conditions,” allergies, or other diseases. The investigators concluded that their survey supported the hypothesis that the folk remedy was particularly well-known among the Mexican-American population and that it was being used for various indications.

Salmonella is not the only bacteria that individuals have been infected with after consuming rattlesnake pills. In a past study, investigators looked at “16 different preparations of rattlesnake powder capsules, obtained in 6 different cities” in Mexico. Their findings were troubling; all samples were found to be “significantly contaminated with gram-negative coliform bacteria,” including Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Enterobacter agglomerans, E. cloacae, Salmonella arizona, and others. Another past report from the CDC also found several types of bacteria in rattlesnake pills when investigating an infection in a 61-year-old Hispanic woman.

The idea that these pills can harbor harmful bacteria should not come as a surprise, as reptiles and their meat are known to carry Salmonella. For example, a recent outbreak of Salmonella agbeni in the United States was linked with pet turtles. In fact, over the course of just 2 years (2011 to 2013), a total of 8 multistate Salmonella outbreaks were traced back to tiny turtles.

There are certain populations who are at increased risk for severe Salmonella infection, according to the CDC. These include:

  • Immunocompromised individuals
  • Those receiving chemotherapy
  • HIV-infected individuals
  • Pregnant women
  • Children under 5
  • Older adults

Because of the dangerous risks associated with taking rattlesnake pills, the CDC recommends that individuals speak with their health care providers if they are considering taking the pills or if they have fallen ill after consuming them.