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The Bill Haast story

Meet Bill Haast, director of the Miami Serpentarium. Bill has been bitten by venomous snakes more than 160 times and lived to tell the tale. But, as he points out, these bites occurred over the course of many years and with more than 3 million handlings of snakes. When you spend your days around as many as 20,000 snakes, as Haast does, you're bound to end up on the wrong side of a fang every now and then.


Bill Haast has spent more than 50 years working with venomous snakes. At the Serpentarium, Haast "milks" his snakes by forcing the reptiles to release their venom into a beaker. Then he sells the poisonous liquid both to medical researchers and to the pharmaceutical companies that make antivenin, the antidote for snake bites.

To produce antivenin, scientists inject horses with small, non-lethal doses of venom. Over time, the horses naturally build up antibodies and other defensive immune substances specifically designed to neutralize the injected venom. Eventually, samples of the horse's blood are collected, and the antibodies within are extracted and processed into commercial formulations of antivenin. Some antivenins will work against venom from several species of snake (this we call cross-reactivity of allergens), others are specific to a single type.
This is not unlike immunotherapy towards allergies and sensitivities. Instead of a horse we use the patients own body to build up "protective immunity" against the offending substance. Of course we don't do immunotherapy against snakebites or other lethal substances (although it has been discussed in the literature), but Bill Haast does. He claims that by giving himself sub-lethal doses of venom from various snakes over the years, it has saved him from numerous lethal bites (although he has lost some fingers despite the immunotherapy). In fact, in the late 1960s Bills own blood was administered to a zoo director who had been bitten by a venomous snake. He claims the transfusion of Bills blood (enriched with so many protective antibodies against snake venom) saved his life.

Bill is truly part scientist, part cowboy and fulltime adventurer. He is a living example of the power of provocation neutralization immunotherapy.


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