Sensationalistic Journalism and Tales of Snakebite

Sensationalistic Journalism and Tales of Snakebite -...

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CONCEPTS Sensationalistic Journalism and Tales of Snakebite: Are Rattlesnakes Rapidly Evolving More Toxic Venom? William K. Hayes, PhD; Stephen P. Mackessy, PhD Department of Earth and Biological Sciences, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, CA (Dr Hayes); and School of Biological Sciences, University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, CO (Dr Mackessy). Recent reports in the lay press have suggested that bites by rattlesnakes in the last several years have been more severe than those in the past. The explanation, often citing physicians, is that rattlesnakes are evolving more toxic venom, perhaps in response to anthropogenic causes. We suggest that other explanations are more parsimonious, including factors dependent on the snake and factors associated with the bite victim’s response to envenomation. Although bites could become more severe from an increased proportion of bites from larger or more provoked snakes (ie, more venom injected), the venom itself evolves much too slowly to explain the severe symptoms occasionally seen. Increased snakebite severity could also result from a number of demographic changes in the victim profile, including age and body size, behavior toward the snake (provocation), anatomical site of bite, clothing, and general health including asthma prevalence and sensitivity to foreign antigens. Clinical manage- ment of bites also changes perpetually, rendering comparisons of snakebite severity over time tenuous. Clearly, careful study taking into consideration many factors will be essential to document temporal changes in snakebite severity or venom toxicity. Presently, no published evidence for these changes exists. The sensationalistic coverage of these atypical bites and accompanying speculation is highly misleading and can produce many detrimental results, such as inappropriate fear of the outdoors and snakes, and distraction from proven snakebite management needs, including a consistent supply of antivenom, adequate health care, and training. We urge healthcare providers to avoid propagating misinformation about snakes and snakebites. Key words : snake, snake envenomation, rattlesnake, venom, Mojave toxin, biochemistry, antivenoms, mass media, evolution Introduction The media loves a sensational story, and when scientists and health professionals are quoted, the public will be- lieve almost anything heard or read. Recently, in 2008, we witnessed a flurry of media stories perpetuating the notion that rattlesnakes—particularly those native to southern California, Arizona, and Colorado ( Table 1 )— were rapidly evolving more toxic venom. 1–4 These sto- ries cited speculation by physicians reporting an unusual number of severe snakebite cases in recent years. Pub- lished opinions that snakes are rapidly evolving more toxic venom are not new. A popularized view, for ex- ample, was published in an article in Natural History nearly a decade ago.
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This note was uploaded on 07/21/2011 for the course BUS 10001 taught by Professor All during the Spring '11 term at Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology.

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Sensationalistic Journalism and Tales of Snakebite -...

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