Staten Island, NY -- New York City may not be where the wild things are, but they sometimes pay a visit to our concrete jungle. In September 2014, in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, a building inspector suffered a non life-threatening bite on her leg by a 4-foot python apparently kept as a house pet. This past January, NBC News reported on venomous snakes being purchased online or at reptile shows, and shipped on passenger airlines around the U.S.; particularly New York City. And though states like New York and New Jersey require permits for the possession of venomous snakes, other neighboring states like Pennsylvania do not; making transportation of these animals over state lines easy.
Regionally, New York State is home to three venomous snakes: the timber rattlesnake, the northern copperhead and the eastern massasauga.
To provide life-saving care for snake bite victims, Staten Island University Hospital (SIUH) and the Staten Island Zoo have put the finishing touches on a regional envenomation (anti-venom) protocol, and the timing may be perfect.
According to Dr. Nima Majlesi, of the Division of Toxicology at Staten Island University Hospital, snake bites are on the rise:
“When we think of emergencies like snake bites, we automatically assume they happen in rural areas outside of major cities. There are many cases each year where landscapers, roofers, even mechanics have been struck by snakes mostly because there are people who keep venomous snakes as pets. In the ED you have to be prepared for anything that walks through the doors.”
A 2014 study published by Wilderness & Environmental Medicine showed that in all of New York State from 2000 to 2010 there were 473 snakebites reported to the State’s five Poison Control Centers. Venomous snakes accounted for 14.2% (67 of 473) of these bites, 35 bites (7%) of which required anti-venom.
In the collaboration between SIUH and the Zoo, the goal is to keep staff members of the zoo safer. According to Zoo general curator, Marc Valitutto, VMD, “the obvious benefit to the Zoo is that we will be able to have a more diverse collection of reptiles on display offering a greater appreciation for these deadly species, while ensuring that our staff is protected with the appropriate antivenom.” The hospital aims to provide this service to the public as well. Both organizations have streamlined a 24-hour access protocol to provide for life-saving anti-venoms when time is the key to survival and successful treatment.
The Zoo’s executive director, Kenneth C. Mitchell, explained, “By partnering with the hospital, we have the opportunity to expand the amount of anti-venom we stock. SIUH will be sharing the costs of anti-venom with the Zoo so that the Zoo can provide other types of anti-venom that are used to treat more obscure venomous snakes naturally found outside of North America.”
Noting that the Staten Island Zoo is one of only two major public exhibitors of venomous snakes in the NYC metro region, Mitchell added, “It is most comforting to know that we have a boarded toxicologist accessible within 10 minutes from the Zoo.”
The venom program consists of a team of dedicated medical toxicologists trained in venomous bites, headed up by Dr. Majlesi, SIUH’s Regional Burn Center for wound care, and North Shore-LIJ’s Medical Helicopter, SkyHealth, for the regional transport of patients and anti-venom in NYC, Long Island and parts of New Jersey. SIUH has been designated the anti-venom receiving center for the 19 hospitals of the North Shore-LIJ Health System.
The envenomation program is not all about being reactive, it’s proactive, Dr. Majlesi explained. “Outreach within the community to educate the public regarding the dangers of owning venomous snakes is our number one priority to hopefully prevent these injuries from happening in the first place. Snake owners may not want to hear from me, but well-placed warnings from Zoo reptile keepers may have a greater impact”
According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control, 7,000–8,000 people per year receive venomous bites in the United States.
About North Shore-LIJ Health System
One of the nation's largest health systems, North Shore-LIJ delivers world-class clinical care throughout the New York metropolitan area, pioneering research at The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, a visionary approach to medical education highlighted by the Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine, and healthcare coverage to individuals, families and businesses through the CareConnect Insurance Co. Inc. North Shore-LIJ cares for people at every stage of life at 19 hospitals and more than 400 outpatient physician practices throughout the region. North Shore-LIJ’s owned hospitals and long-term care facilities house more than 6,400 beds, employ more than 13,000 nurses and have affiliations with about 10,000 physicians. With a workforce of about 54,000, North Shore-LIJ is the largest private employer in New York State. For more information, go to www.northshorelij.com.