LADY LAKE, Fla. – The next time a venomous snake sinks its fangs into someone in Central Florida, a new unit established by Lake County Fire Rescue may be called in to transport anti-venom to the hospital or help identify and remove the reptile.
"Venom Two" Is modeled after a 20-year-old program based in Miami-Dade County, "Venom One," that maintains the nation's largest anti-venom bank for use by the public.
With the addition of the Lake County unit, people living in Central and Northern Florida will likely have quicker access to medication needed to treat bites from Florida-native snakes such as rattlesnakes, water moccasins and coral snakes.
"Time is critical," said Dr. Benjamin Abo, the medical director of both units. "So for us to be able to bring that domestic anti-venom is really important."
Few hospitals stock adequate quantities of anti-venom, in part because of the drug's limited shelf life and high cost. One dose of anti-venom for pit vipers such as Eastern Diamondback rattlesnakes can cost more than $3,000, while the scarcer anti-venom for coral snake bites can exceed $7,000 a dose.
"It would be nice to have plenty of anti-venom. But if you don't use it, it's money lost by the hospitals," said Abo.
When emergency first responders receive a call about a snake bite victim, firefighters who volunteer with "Venom Two" may be asked to view photographs of the snake to determine whether the reptile is venomous, and if so, what type of anti-venom will be needed.
"The members of 'Venom 2' are trained in snake recognition and how to diagnose certain snake bites," said Lake County EMS Battalion Chief Dan Miller. "They'll start figuring out where that patient is going to be transported. The team will then take the anti-venom and meet them at the hospital."
The time required to begin administering anti-venom can vary depending on the species of snake and how much venom is injected into the victim, according to Abo. But he said it's best to start treatment as soon as possible.
"You're talking about two hours. Three hours. We really need to act on it," Abo said. "It takes time (for the victim) to get out of the forest. It takes time to get to the ambulance. It takes time to get to a hospital. Then they need to start ordering anti-venom. Do they even have it?"
With vehicles equipped with lights and sirens and access to law enforcement aircraft, 'Venom Two' can considerably reduce the time needed to transport anti-venom throughout the northern half of Florida.
"Only five to seven people die from snakebites in the U.S. per year," said Abo. "But how many have permanent pain, permanent disability or kids that can't play at recess? Those are some major issues we're trying to help."
Although "Venom Two" does not stock anti-venom for exotic snakes kept as pets, the unit has already worked with its sister program in Miami-Dade County to save a life.
"There was a cobra bite in Tallahassee. The patient was brought to Gainesville. The only anti-venom was down in Miami," said Miller. "So they responded with anti-venom up the (Florida) Turnpike and we responded halfway down. We met them at the Port St. Lucie rest area. They handed it off, and we took it the rest of the way for them."
Besides responding to emergencies, Lake County's venom team also provides educational programs to the public and responds to local inquiries about snakes.
"People will call who have a snake in their bathroom or a snake in their garage. And they're scared," Miller said. "We can identify it through a picture and explain to the caller, 'No, that's not a rattlesnake. It's just a brown water snake. It's fine.'"