This website has been around for about a decade now, and in that time we have covered a wide variety of pseudoscience and quackery. So I was surprised, and just a bit delighted, to actually come across something that had never been discussed before on SBM: rattlesnake pills. Well, technically Mark Crislip mentioned it very briefly back in April. Just let me have this one, okay?
The ingestion of various components of the rattlesnake, in particular the meat, is a common folk remedy among Mexican and Mexican-American populations. It has historically been used to treat a variety of disparate ailments, such as acne and cancer, because of the belief that it cleanses the blood. The list also includes HIV, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, etc. As has been said many times on SBM, however, the more problems that a remedy supposedly cures the more likely it is that it actually doesn’t cure anything at all.
Outside of some rumblings about potential anti-cancer chemicals found in snake venom that haven’t gone anywhere yet, there is no evidence to support any health benefits from any part of the snake. At best, rattlesnake meat is just a food that requires proper handling and cooking to reduce the risk of a foodborne illness. As a Louisiana native, if I’m going to eat reptile, I much prefer some grilled alligator, also known as the chicken of the swamp.
Medicinal rattlesnake ingestion these days, especially in the United States, typically comes in the form of pills. Rattlesnake pills contain dehydrated meat that has been pulverized into a powder, although what is actually in them is anyone’s guess. Obviously the FDA has not approved them for sale in the United States, so there is no oversight whatsoever. They aren’t even held up to the meager standards dictated by DSHEA and must be purchased online or in Mexico.
What’s the harm?
What brought the practice of ingesting rattlesnake for medicinal purposes to my attention was a recent CDC warning. The CDC report discusses a case in Kansas of a non-fatal human infection with Salmonella believed to be linked to Mexican rattlesnake pills. Using whole genome sequencing, the CDC found that the Salmonella in this case was identical to Salmonella cultured from Mexican rattlesnake pills confiscated in an earlier investigation.
This isn’t the first time that rattlesnake pills have been linked to human infection. In fact, there are several reported cases, specifically involving various non-typhoidal strains of Salmonella, but other types of bacteria have been implicated. One prior case, reported back in 2007, involved a child with an immune-compromising autoimmune condition. This case involved a child with leukemia. That particular child survived, but not all cases have had good outcomes.
This isn’t surprising considering that reptiles, particularly those adorable tiny turtles, are common carriers of the potentially deadly bacteria. Amphibians are also a potential risk. For this reason, the sale of tiny turtles has been banned in the United States since 1975 and pediatricians recommend against exposing children under the age of 5 years to reptiles and amphibians. People of all ages with compromised immune systems, such as from HIV or chemotherapy, and the elderly are also at particular risk.
This is why SBM exists; this is why we care so much about quackery
Proponents of quackery, and the often credulous media that gives them undeserved attention, love to use anecdotes and testimonials in place of scientific plausibility and good clinical evidence. Allow me the opportunity to do a bit of fighting fire with fire.
Phyllis Brickert was an impressive person. She was the first female deputy sheriff in Chelan County, Washington, was a member of the Air National Guard, and served in Iraq during the Gulf War. She competed nationally in the biathlon and was dedicated to keeping kids from abusing drugs. At the age of 55, just as she was about to retire, she was diagnosed with stage IV cervical cancer and underwent evidence-based treatment with chemotherapy and radiation.
Though at first the treatment appeared to be working, the cancer returned and Brickert chose palliative care over more aggressive attempts at curative treatment. She had decided to focus on the quality of her remaining few months. A family friend told Brickert about a Mexican cancer remedy consisting of drinking the blood of a rattlesnake and eating sun dried portions of rattlesnake meat, and although initially quite skeptical she decided that she had little to lose. She traveled to a remote Mexican village and experienced significant relief from her pain after only a few hours of the treatment.
She quit taking her pain medications and began undergoing energy healing sessions with Master Ting-Jue Zhou in Los Angeles. Three weeks later she returned to her home where imaging showed that her tumor was gone. According to Brickert, her oncologist, naturally quite pleased with the results, said to keep doing whatever it was she was doing because it was working.
Unfortunately that wasn’t the end of Brickert’s story. It was just how her story was told by a Los Angeles new station in April of 2009. By July of 2009 she was dead, having succumbed to the cervical cancer which was not cured by rattlesnake meat or blood. It is incredibly unlikely that this folk remedy did anything at all other than to give her false hope, expose her to risk of a deadly infection, and further limit the amount of quality time she had left to spend with family and friends.
Her story also provided a credulous local news station with a feel good narrative that has now been seen by thousands of people, and advertising for a proponent of so-called integrative medicine who thinks that plants make venom. These people, some of which may be desperately searching for their own cure for a terminal illness, likely won’t take the extra step that I did to look for an obituary. And knowing the ultimate outcome provides important context that isn’t going to be discussed by cancer quackery proponents like the one featured in the video.
Conclusion: Rattlesnakes don’t cure
Rattlesnake ingested in any form is not a cure for cancer or any other ailment. And it isn’t risk free. The link between rattlesnake-based products and Salmonella is well-established, and it is even more dangerous when the person consuming them has a weakened immune system.