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Rattling the Snakebite Victim

January 23, 1988

It seems that the chances of getting bitten by a rattlesnake have more to do with a person's carelessness or stupidity than just rolling snake eyes. Thanks to a study at the USC Medical Center, there now is something of a profile of the average snakebite victim.

The results of the study by Dr. Willis Wingert have been published in the Western Journal of Medicine in an article that was co-authored by Linda Chan. The pair analyzed 227 cases of snakebite at the hospital over the past 11 years and found that only 44% of the cases were considered to be accidental. More than 50% of the snakebites resulted from the victim's intentional handling of the snake, and 28% of the victims were intoxicated, the article said. Male victims outnumbered females nine to one.

"Snakebites usually occur in young men in their third decade of life who have a blood-alcohol concentration of more than 0.10%," Wingert said. That is the level at which a California motorist is presumed to be driving while intoxicated.

Many of the victims were bitten while trying to feed snakes, Wingert said, adding, "Another thing they'll do is try to catch a snake in the wild by grabbing it by the tail, which is a disaster. The snakes whip around and bite them on the hand or fingers." Only one of the 227 victims died, and he was an 80-year-old who suffered a heart attack after arriving at the hospital.

This does not mean that one has to pity the poor rattlers. They can be a danger to the unwary. On the whole, however, rattlesnakes are shy creatures that strike only when threatened, and often only after they have given warning. In that sense they may be considerably less dangerous than the person with a blood-alcohol content of more than 0.10% who is behind the wheel of a motor vehicle.

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