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DeLand hospital testing new treatment for coral snake bites

University of Arizona Viper Institute producing drug

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Carl Barden is the owner of the Reptile Discovery Center in DeLand and handles hundreds of venomous snakes a week.

He extracts snake venom for medical research and lets the public watch him do it. But it's a job with risks.

"When you put your hands on snakes that frequently, sometimes there's an accident," Barden said.

ONLINE: Coral Snake Antivenom FAQ

In 25 years he's been bitten 11 times by venomous snakes, and he knows anti-venom works.

"Oh, I'm here to tell you, it's great stuff. It's a magnificent drug. It's terrifically effective, and it still saves tens of thousands of lives around the world every year," he said. "Including mine."

Florida Hospital DeLand is one of three hospitals in the state using experimental antivenin for coral snake bites. The serum is referred to as anti-venom or antivenin, according to the Florida Poison Information Center.

The University of Arizona Viper Institute is producing the drug being tested at Florida Hospital DeLand. The antivenin has successfully treated several people. Coral snake anti-venom in the past has been in short supply.

"In DeLand, we've had to reach as far away as Miami in order to get the coral snake anti-venom delivered." said Beth Hooks, the director of Emergency and Behavioral Health Services.

The pharmaceutical company that made coral snake antivenin stopped producing it. Many suspect because it wasn't profitable. However, Hooks said it is needed in Florida.

"It's a very serious snake bite," she said.

Coral snake bites are rare, but can be deadly.

There are about 6,000 snake bites in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2013, only 73 of those were coral snake bites, but more than half of them happened in Florida.

In 2014, the number of coral snake bites jumped to 52 in the state, according to statistics from the Florida Poison Information Center.

Coral snakes are mild mannered and brightly colored, which sometimes makes people want to pick them up, Barden said. The snakes are sometimes mistaken for the non-venomous King snake, which also has three colors, but in a different pattern.

"The vast majority of time that somebody is seeing a beautiful tri-color, at least in Central Florida, they are in fact looking at a coral snake," Barden said

Coral snakes often try and retreat, but when they do bite the venom is deadly.

"Coral snake venom is terrifically toxic. Its highly neuro toxic," Barden said.

"It can cause a stoppage in breathing and require the patient be put on a ventilator," Hooks said

But now armed with more anti-venom, lives can be saved.

"It is truly a life-saving drug, and there is no question that there's a necessity for it," Barden said.

The experimental antivenin is at Florida Hospital DeLand, Tampa General, and Lee Memorial in Fort Myers.

If someone around you is bitten, Hooks said you should call 911 first, then the Poison Information Center for first aid instructions.