Of the thousands of scorpion stings reported each year the worst cases are in Arizona. Medical Director of the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center, Dr. Leslie Boyer, says children less than five years old are the most vulnerable.
"When the tail of the scorpion inserts its little stinger in the soft skin of a small baby, a dose of nerve poison is injected under the skin, sufficient to cause every nerve in the baby’s body to go haywire," Boyer said.
It’s the bark scorpion that’s so dangerous, and even though these cases are rare, Dr. Boyer made it her mission to find a cure. The anti-venom supplies had dried up in the state. However she learned about an alternative, an anti-venom used in Mexico. It took years but she finally got approval to test it in the United States.
"A project in which we would take children who were critically ill from scorpion sting and half of them would be given the actual anti-venom and half would be given a placebo, a fake drug and even their doctors wouldn’t know who got which. By comparing the two groups we would find out once and for all whether this anti-venom worked," said Boyer.
The results were indisputable and the findings were recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Not only did the anti-venom work but had other benefits too.
"The first thing we learned was that anti-venom works, in contrast with the children who didn’t get anti-venom who were still really sick four hours later and continued for 24 hours in the ICU. The ones who got anti-venom were better in less than four hours, usually less than two hours. They can be treated in the emergency room and released," said Boyer.
"The second thing we learned was that the dose of sedative medication the doctors have to give is so low now that we’re no longer seeing the side effects from over sedation. Children who don’t get anti-venom get enough sedative drug to kill a horse. It is a massive overdose of sedative drug. The third thing that we learned is going to help biologists and doctors to understand venom disease even more. We took blood samples from these children and for the first time ever we were able to discover the circulating venom in their bloodstream and we’re beginning to learn where it goes, how it acts and whether maybe that venom will have hidden pharmaceuticals in it for us to discover and use in the future," said Boyer.
Dr. Boyer says she was inspired by a little boy from Globe, Arizona, who died from a scorpion sting in 2002. At the time there was nothing she could do. Then in what was an incredible shock to the family, the younger brother was stung by a scorpion last year.
"No one could believe that lightning had struck twice in the same family and that little boy came to UMC and I sat in the emergency room with him and talked with his parents and we discussed the fact that we had an experimental drug and that every experimental drug carries risks. We tried it and we gave this antidote to the brother of the boy who had died and he got well so fast. It was one of the most beautiful moments in my career," Boyer said.
University of Arizona College of Pharmacy
Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center: 1-800-222-1222 (24 hours a day)