Dawn Bray worried she might lose a second child to a scorpion’s sting.
A bark scorpion stung her 6-year-old son Morgan last May. As the family rushed him to the hospital in Globe, a wave of fear came over Bray. Six years earlier, in May 2002, she lost her 2-year-old son Dally to a bark scorpion’s sting.
“When Morgan got bit, I was thinking that it was happening again,” Bray recalled this week. “With another son, we would have the same outcome.”
From Globe, doctors flew Morgan to Tucson for treatment. He received a dose of Anascorp, a scorpion antivenin used widely Mexico but not approved for general use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Morgan made a speedy recovery. Just hours after his treatment, the Brays ate dinner together at a McDonald’s before making the two-hour drive back to their home about 25 miles south of Globe.
Morgan’s survival means that his brother “did not die in vain,” Bray said.
After Dally’s death, the Brays met with Leslie Boyer, director of the University of Arizona’s Venom Immunochemistry, Pharmacology and Emergency Response Institute. Dally received an antivenin but died anyway, his mother said. The family wanted answers.
Of the 60 scorpion species and subspecies in the U.S., only the Arizona bark scorpion is dangerous to humans; consequently, scorpion sting deaths are exceedingly rare in the United States, with fewer than a half-dozen in the past decade. But in equatorial countries more people die of scorpion stings than venomous snake bites. More than 1,000 people a year die from scorpion stings in Mexico, according to an article in eMedicine, an online medical journal.
Two years after Dally’s death, Boyer and a team of UA researchers began studying Anascorp, a drug Mexican doctors used regularly to treat those severely affected by scorpion stings. The UA researchers published their findings in the May 14 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.
The study focused on 15 children hospitalized for severe reactions to scorpion stings in 2004 and 2005. Eight received Anascorp, which the FDA considers an “investigational drug.” Seven received a placebo.
Symptoms of nerve poisoning disappeared in less than four hours in the children treated with the antivenin. In the placebo group, symptoms lasted for several hours. Children not treated with Anascorp required sedation and longer hospital stays, the study found.
Bark scorpion venom “goes to every nerve of the body and tells them, ‘Fire!’ ” Boyer said.
In the worst cases, the bark scorpion’s venom can cause respiratory failure.
Scorpions sting about 8,000 people in Arizona every year. In Mexico, where Anascorp is widely available, scorpions sting 250,000 people a year.
In about 200 cases a year in the U.S., usually involving children, nerve poisoning becomes severe enough to require hospitalization.
Children in Tucson can go to a hospital emergency room for treatment, Boyer said. “But what about the baby in Morenci, the toddler in Globe?”
The UA study has expanded to include 24 Arizona hospitals. About 600 patients have received Anascorp since 2004, Boyer said.
Even in rural areas, severely affected children can receive the treatment within an hour of getting stung, the doctor said.
Whether the study’s findings will lead to FDA approval remains unclear. “We’re the only state in the country where this is important,” Boyer said.
For the Brays, it was a matter of life and death.
“Dr. Boyer was our angel,” Bray said. “If she trusted it, we trusted it.”