Botanica owner Carmen Mujica doesn’t believe the warnings about rattlesnake capsules, even if county officials say they caused three deaths in recent months.
“I’ve taken rattlesnake capsules my entire life and I’m strong and healthy,” said Mujica, who last week heard on a Spanish-language radio station the warnings that the capsules can cause illness and death. “What else are poor people going to cure themselves with?”
Five Los Angeles County residents were hospitalized in recent months with a bacterial infection caused by a strain of salmonella commonly found in reptiles, according to county health officials. Three of the patients died. Cause of death: powdered rattlesnake meat consumed in capsule form.
Although the warning issued last week by the County Department of Health Services carries no legal weight, officials expressed concern over the popularity of the capsules, a Latino folk remedy touted to combat a variety of chronic medical problems including acne, cancer, arthritis, blood disorders and AIDS.
“In Los Angeles County, this is the kind of medicine people turn to when modern medicine fails,” said Dr. Roshan Reporter, a county epidemiologist who helped identify the rattlesnake capsules as the source of the three deaths.
The California Department of Health Services has no plans to prohibit sale of the capsules because their manufacturers make no specific health claims. The capsules are considered a food, since they are nothing more than dried rattlesnake meat, said Frank Nava, the chief of field operations for the agency.
“We just want to make people aware that the rattlesnake should be cooked properly, since it’s the cooking process that kills potentially harmful bacteria,” Nava said.
Despite the warning issued by the county, Mujica said she will continue to sell the capsules, known in Spanish as polvo de vibora , carne de vibora and vibora de cascabel .
Mujica is not alone in her continued faith in the healing power of dried, ground rattlesnake meat. Along Pacific Boulevard in Huntington Park, half of the six botanicas sell rattlesnake products.
Nestled between posters in Hindi advertising the afterlife and dozens of herbal remedies imported from Latin America, customers at one shop can purchase a packet of 50 rattlesnake capsules for as little as $10.
“The capsules are part of our culture, they’re the way people survived when there wasn’t anything else,” said a botanica clerk who asked not to be identified.
“If it (dried rattlesnake) is good enough for the poor in Mexico, it’s good enough for us, too.”
Produced in Mexico and shipped across the border as a general health supplement, the rattlesnake capsules have caused dozens of county residents to get sick in recent years. According to county health officials, an average of 15 people fell ill each year since 1984 from the particular type of salmonella found in rattlesnakes.
Commonly called Salmonella Arizona or Salmonella Subgroup Three, the bacterial infection can cause fever, diarrhea, abdominal pain and sometimes vomiting. Salmonella bacteria can also infect the bloodstream, resulting in potentially fatal illness.
People with decreased resistance to infections because of other illnesses are especially prone to bloodstream infections. The three individuals who died after taking the capsules were cancer patients who were more susceptible to falling terminally ill from the capsules, Reporter said.
From behind the counter of her Botanica San Jose, Mujica remains unfazed by the hullabaloo surrounding the capsules.
“Taking a bad capsule is just like eating a bad hamburger; you take your chances and hope for the best. And if you don’t have much money, sometimes it’s all you can afford,” she said, standing near a rack containing brightly colored packages of shark cartilage, cat’s nail and powdered rattlesnake.