DAVID GREENE, Host:
The Food and Drug Administration approved a new drug for use this week, an antivenom used to treat severe scorpion stings. It's called Anascorp and it was developed in Mexico. Children are the most vulnerable to scorpion stings. Without treatment, they could die. The United States ran out of its own supply of scorpion antivenom nearly a decade ago. From the public media collaboration Fronteras, Monica Ortiz Uribe reports that this new drug has the potential to save hundreds of lives each year.
MONICA ORTIZ URIBE: Toxicologists refer to the American Southwest as the Venom Belt. It's home to thousands of venomous animals, some which can be extremely dangerous to humans. Take scorpion stings, for example.
LESLIE BOYER: Without antivenom, if you've got that bad of a sting, you accept the intensive care or you risk death.
ORTIZ URIBE: That's Dr. Leslie Boyer. She's a pediatrician who directs the Venom Research Center in Tucson. She estimates that in the United States, there are 250 severe scorpion stings a year. Most of those stung are children in Arizona. Drug companies in the United States have little incentive to make antivenom because one, it's expensive; and two, there simply aren't enough patients to guarantee a profit.
BOYER: We in Arizona felt very isolated. We felt abandoned. This was an orphan disease.
ORTIZ URIBE: That is until Dr. Boyer took a trip south of the border and discovered that Mexico had a far bigger scorpion problem.
PETRA PEREZ: (Spanish spoken)
ORTIZ URIBE: During summers at this Red Cross clinic in Central Mexico, there can be up to 50 scorpion stings a night. Petra Perez was picking out dead leaves from a flower pot when she got stung twice on her middle finger.
PEREZ: (Spanish spoken)
ORTIZ URIBE: The pain is too much to take, she says. In Mexico, a quarter of a million people are stung by dangerous scorpions each year.
ALEJANDRO ALAGON: So consequently, Mexico has been in truly antivenom field for many, many years. And over many years, we have accumulated a big experience on how to make good antivenoms.
ORTIZ URIBE: Dr. Alejandro Alagon is a professor of biochemistry at Mexico's Autonomous National University. He says 20 years ago, hundreds of people in Mexico would die each year from scorpion stings. Alagon is also an advisor to the Mexican drug company that makes the antivenom, which is effective against the same species of scorpion that exists in Arizona. Again, Dr. Boyer.
BOYER: We discovered that our Mexican colleagues had pushed the technology of antivenom development way beyond what we had done in the U.S.
ORTIZ URIBE: So in 2004, Dr. Boyer launched a clinical study of Anascorp in the United States, which was supervised by the Food and Drug Administration. Twenty-eight hospitals participated and nearly 2,000 Americans received the drug.
RYLEIGH WAGLEY: What kind of book is this?
ORTIZ URIBE: One of the youngest America patients to receive the drug thus far is this little girl, Ryleigh Wagley.
WAGLEY: Scorpions are not nice.
ORTIZ URIBE: Ryleigh is four now, but when she was just 25 days old, she was stung by a scorpion in her crib. Her family lives in rural Eastern Arizona, more than two hours away from the nearest ICU. Luckily for Ryleigh, a small clinic in the nearby mining town of Morenci was part of the clinical study of Anascorp. Dr. Fred Fox was the physician who treated Ryleigh. He says the antivenom helped save her life.
FRED FOX: It's allowed us to treat patients who either could have died or been seriously ill and would have been sent to the intensive care unit. Now, we can treat them and then actually send them home from here.
ORTIZ URIBE: Scorpion stings are only one problem. Across the United States, there is a severe shortage of antivenom against all kinds of venomous animals, from spiders to snakes. Currently, hospitals across the country are testing two more antivenoms: one against black widow spiders and another against rattlesnakes. For NPR News, I'm Monica Ortiz Uribe.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.