Durango's Cult of the Scorpion

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Enrique Hernandez and two of his brothers are on the hunt, armed with 8-inch tweezers and a plastic jar. They poke boldly through the rubble in an empty lot behind their house and soon snatch the day's first trophy: a writhing, 2-inch-long scorpion.

Within half an hour, they've trapped 30 of the golden arachnids, whose slender pincers belie the ferocity of their sting. This species, Centruroides suffusus, can kill a child and inflict vicious pain on adults.

The eight Hernandez brothers have followed in their father's footsteps as alacraneros, or scorpion hunters, catching thousands of the creatures each summer. Most are mounted on the key rings, ashtrays, napkin holders and wall clocks that clutter the stalls of Durango's city market, a famed scorpion souvenir center. Some of the catch is sold for scientific research.

This flourishing industry is just one facet of Mexico's fear of and fascination with the scorpion, which predate the Spanish conquest in 1521. No wonder: About 200,000 people get stung each year, and scores die. Scorpions, almost unchanged in 450 million years, remain a source of widespread anxiety as well as a serious health scourge.

In recent years, Mexicans have counterattacked on multiple fronts. A relentless public health campaign has dramatically reduced the death rate, and a new Mexican-made antivenin serum is so effective that U.S. doctors want to import it. Cutting-edge Mexican research could even put the scorpion's venom to work fighting malaria in years to come.

Nowhere is the rich and complex scorpion culture as pervasive as in Durango, the northwestern state of which this city is the capital. The soccer team is named the Scorpions, and a scorpion grabs your cursor when you sign on to the official state Web site.

In fact, the figures don't bear out the reputation. The city's 550,000 people suffer about 2,000 stings a year, a fraction of the number reported in some states. And nobody died of a scorpion sting last year in Durango state. Fatalities are far more common in Guerrero and other Pacific Coast states such as Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima.

But Durango's fame is unshakable, thanks in part to legends like that of "the death cell." The story has it that in 1884, a man named Juan was unfairly jailed in Durango for accidentally killing a woman. He was put in the death cell, where no one had survived a single night because of a monster scorpion. The valiant Juan caught the "killer scorpion of the death cell" and survived. He was then pardoned and set free.

The tale is recounted by Betty Grace Santiesteban, a Durango city woman who went through her own ordeal thanks to scorpions.

Her older brother almost died as a child from a scorpion sting. She later moved into a house on a hill overlooking Durango where scorpions thrived. She recalls killing 100 or so in two years in her home. "One kept me awake in my bedroom until 4 a.m. This tiny thing was dominating my life," she says.

To overcome her fears, Santiesteban began learning about scorpions, gathering facts about the dangers, the symptoms of stings and the safeguards, "so I wouldn't have to live in such ignorance. And the truth set me free from those fears," she says.

To share her knowledge, Santiesteban, 49, lectures on radio programs, works with community groups and has written a slim volume, "The Realities of the Scorpion," which she printed herself.

"I have respect for them but no fear," she says. "There's a culture here--you learn to live with them. You shake your shoes before you put them on and shake out your sheets before getting into bed. You're constantly looking at the walls and ceilings. It's a survival mechanism."

Hunting Arachnids to Make Souvenirs

For the Hernandez brothers, scorpions are a means of survival. Their modest livelihood comes from the souvenirs the big family produces. They hunt scorpions from June to August, mostly in the countryside, and preserve the creatures in plastic jugs for use during the rest of the year.

"I believe we should sell the image of Durango as the capital of scorpions to bring more tourists here," Enrique Hernandez says. "And it's not dangerous in the good hotels in the city, only in the poor areas and wooden houses."

He says he's been stung 20 or so times in the 15 years he's been catching scorpions.

He and brothers Antonio and Alejandro often use a metal rod to stir the rocks and find the scorpions. Other times they use their bare hands. In an impromptu hunt in the lot behind their house, Enrique found several scorpions hidden in the rotten stump of a maguey plant. More scurried from trash that had been dumped on the lot.

This is a perfect urban breeding ground for scorpions, the kind that state authorities are constantly advising people to clean up. Other advice: Cover doorsteps with smooth tiles, which scorpions can't climb, and don't use rough wood or adobe bricks, which create cozy crevices.

The Hernandez clan comes from a long tradition of scorpion hunting in the city. When Durango was still a small town, authorities tried to wipe out the critters by paying residents for each scorpion, living or dead. Alejandro Peschard Fernandez, a local doctor, recalled in an essay that the city bought 600,000 scorpions in 1784. In 1930, another effort exterminated 50,000 more.

Peschard noted that every April 23, Durango celebrates the feast day of San Jorge, patron saint protecting children against scorpions. The feast was instituted in 1740 by Bishop Pedro Anselmo Sanchez de Tagle, who prayed that God would "placate his ire and destroy the scorpions and other insects with which this city is inundated."

The scorpion claims an ancient place in Mexican lore. It features in pre-Hispanic artwork of Olmec Indians signifying a midnight sacrifice. Legends dating from the 1500s tell of Spanish conquerors succumbing to stings.

Over the last decade, Mexico has achieved striking results in the 16 states where scorpions are a threat. The number of reported deaths, which once topped 1,000 a year, has fallen steadily from 285 in 1995 to 92 in 1999.

Two related factors are credited with the sharp drop in fatalities: the health campaign and the serum program.

Virginia Alcantara Rodriguez, a doctor who heads the Health Ministry's anti-scorpion program, says several thousand people have been trained since 1992 to treat scorpion stings in the tiniest villages. Because they are residents, they can treat victims in the neighborhood even at night, when most stings occur and when local clinics often are closed. They also are trained to report all cases to a federal registry.

"The number of reported cases of stings is going up, which means we are arriving closer to the reality," Alcantara says. "More people are dealing with the problem, and we have improved the entire epidemiological system."

An improved antivenin serum also has countered the symptoms and eased suffering for hundreds of thousands of victims. Equally important, new techniques for producing the serum appear to have nearly eliminated its once-serious side effects.

Time Is of the Essence After Being Stung

Sergio Gonzalez Romero, director of the Durango General Hospital, says nurses treat as many as 20 scorpion sting victims a day at the hospital's Anti-Scorpion Center. Treatment with the costly serum is free.

About 62% of the victims have only local symptoms, mainly sharp pain, and don't need the serum. About 38% show systemic symptoms, such as rolling eyes, convulsions, sweating or a sensation of something stuck in the throat.

"With scorpion stings, time is gold," Gonzalez says. "The great difference here is that people in Durango know now to come immediately to the hospital, and we have skilled nurses who specialize in scorpion bites."

The head nurse at the Anti-Scorpion Center, Maria Jesus Reyes, says that "some victims arrive here nearly dead, but we haven't lost one patient."

She says the hands are the most common target of the scorpion's sting, as people reach out to take hold of something where a scorpion may be hiding. The feet are the next most common. More advice: Don't walk barefoot.

Scorpionologists in the United States, where the arachnids tend to be less venomous except in Arizona, have long argued over the merits of using antivenin serums. Opponents contend that the possible side effects, including rashes, can be worse than riding out the sting's effects. Mexican doctors and researchers, however, are convinced that the improved serums are safe and reaction-free, and warranted, given the relief they offer in reducing the symptoms and pain levels almost immediately.

Alfredo Chavez Haro, head of the anti-scorpion program at the Red Cross Hospital in Leon in the central state of Guanajuato, reported recently that the hospital has treated 190,000 patients since 1970 with the serums.

"The mortality rate has been zero, and the secondary effects reported so far also have been nil," he wrote. "It is important that people lose their exaggerated fear of the antidote simply because it is a product that comes from a horse."

The serum is made by extracting scorpion venom and injecting it into goats or horses, which then produce antibodies. The mammals' blood is drawn and the antibodies are separated, filtered and bottled.

U.S. Experts Hope FDA Will OK Serum

Leslie Boyer, medical director of the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center at the University of Arizona, wants the Mexican serum. Arizona is the only U.S. state with a serious scorpion problem. The issue is urgent for Boyer because the Arizona center's own supply of less sophisticated antivenin serum is about to run out--the woman who made it, researcher Marilyn Bloom, has retired along with her two goats.

Boyer learned that Instituto Bioclon, an arm of prominent Mexican pharmaceutical company Silanes, was producing huge volumes of a "third-generation" immunoglobulin serum from horse blood for the Mexican national program.

Bioclon President Juan Lopez de Silanes says the company managed to remove from the serum the fraction of the immunoglobulin that caused adverse reactions in humans. Lopez de Silanes says this formula has virtually eliminated the risk of two side effects: dangerous anaphylactic reactions, similar to a bad reaction to a bee sting; and delayed-reaction serum sickness, including a rash and vomiting, which can occur seven to 10 days later.

Bioclon is working with Boyer and Orphan Pharmaceuticals USA of Nashville to get U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for experimental use of the drug in the United States.

Boyer says she hopes that the FDA will allow Bioclon's Alacramyn to be used in Arizona in time for the next scorpion season, which starts in the spring. Victims willing to use the serum would be tracked for negative reactions.

Conditions for scorpion victims in the two countries are vastly different. In the U.S., people can get an ambulance in minutes and intensive care minutes later. In Mexico, qualified help can be hours away.

"You don't die just from a scorpion sting in Mexico," Boyer says. "Tiny children whose families have no car or phone to call for lifesaving care die just because it's the straw on the camel's back. It's not that the scorpions are meaner but that people are more vulnerable."

However, scorpion research here has produced surprising advances that could put the potent venom to good use for mankind.

Lourival Possani, a renowned biochemist who runs a research lab in the scorpion-ridden city of Cuernavaca, is even trying to use scorpion toxins to defeat malaria. Possani's preliminary findings suggest that scorpion venom could prove to be an effective tool to genetically engineer mosquitoes so that they cannot carry the malaria parasite.

In his crowded laboratory, research assistants milk scorpion venom from such species as the hand-sized African Pandinus imperator. There are bins full of creeping Centruroides limpidus, the small but dangerous scorpion that infests houses in Cuernavaca and adjacent Tepoztlan in Morelos state.

Possani has spent 26 years unraveling the secrets of scorpion toxins in his laboratory, which is part of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

The potential anti-malaria application will need years more detailed study, but if successful it would neatly bring full circle the centuries of efforts in Mexico to live with and even exploit the scorpion. Where better than in a country where the little beasts have been making life miserable for millions of people?

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Scorpion Facts

Average size: 2.5 inches.

Anatomy: Scorpions are arachnids sometimes mistaken for insects. Closely related to spiders and ticks, they have two body segments and eight legs.

Number: There are hundreds of species in the world, about 40 in California, 62 in Baja California.

Habitat: In burrows under rocks and logs, and in sand. In urban areas, in lumber piles, crevices, boxes, brush and other rubble.

Toxicity: Scorpion stings are painful but rarely lethal to humans.

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Front claws hold prey

Scorpions have 6 to 12 eyes

Breathing pores are on the abdomen

Stinger paralyzes prey

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Sources: World Book Encyclopedia; Encyclopedia Britannica; Insects of the Los Angeles Basin

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