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Sunday, February 18, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Snake Venom Keeps Believer In Good Health

AP

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. - Bill Haast slid back the top to the large metal box and up popped a cobra.

The snake spread its hood, weaved back and forth, side to side, hissed. Haast placed his hand about six inches from its menacing fangs. A few drops of the snake's venom could kill an ordinary human.

Or, Haast believes, perhaps save someone. Bill Haast is not an ordinary human.

The snake lunged four times. Each time, Haast pulled back his hand, just out of range, just in time.

His timing has not always been perfect. At 85, he has been bitten 162 times - the latest, by a cobra, three months ago - by snakes with venom poisonous enough to kill an elephant. Twice, Haast almost died.

But Haast has been injecting himself with snake venom since 1948. He has built up such powerful antibodies in his system that his blood has been used as a snakebite antidote.

He began with tiny amounts of rattlesnake venom and built up the dosage over the years. He now injects himself once a week with venom from 32 species. He says he is now immune from snakebites.

He also believes the snake venom has kept him healthy and holds the potential to help people with multiple sclerosis and other diseases.

Except for rare snakebites, he says, "I've never been sick a day in my life. I've never been to a doctor. I've never had the flu, not even a cold."

Neither, he says, has he had arthritis, bursitis or any communicable disease. He has never taken medicine, not even aspirin. He looks like a man in his 60s.

Is snake venom the secret to health and long life?

"Come back in 15 years when I'm 100, and if I still look like I do today, then I would say `yes,' " Haast says.

Haast opened his first serpentarium in 1948, performing with snakes for tourists and selling venom from about 36,000 extractions annually. He was confident that cobra venom held the secret to curing or maybe even preventing disease.

His built-up immunity to snake venom certainly saved his own life.

In 1954 he was bitten by a blue krait, a snake that comes from Asia. Drop for drop, the krait's venom is many times more poisonous than a cobra's.

"I had never heard of a krait bite victim ever surviving," Haast says.

"I felt like the skin had been stripped from my body, like every nerve in my teeth was exposed, like my hair was being ripped out of my head."

Haast survived, barely. The snake died 10 days later.

In 1969, he answered an emergency summons from Bob Elgin, director of the Des Moines Zoo in Iowa, who had been bitten by a snake. Blood transfusions from Haast saved him. Haast keeps a letter from Elgin: "Each morning when the sun comes up, I think of you."

Haast's chance to test his theory, however, resulted in his run-in with the FDA. An FDA document provides details:

In the late 1970s, A Miami physician named Ben Sheppard (now dead), suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. Sheppard took PROven, the medication produced by Haast. The doctor was so pleased with the results that he started giving injections to patients with a variety of diseases.

Sheppard's clinic became famous, featured on the CBS-TV show "60 Minutes."

Haast recalls:

"Sheppard eventually was treating six or seven thousand patients. Most of them had MS. People came from all over the United States and even from other countries. The drug really helped them, but the FDA was upset because we hadn't done clinical studies first."

The FDA shut down the clinic and banned the drug. It ruled that the drug had not been properly tested or licensed for human use.

The Multiple Sclerosis Society still gets so many inquiries about PROven that it felt compelled to publish something on the drug last year.

The article notes the drug has been suggested as a treatment for arthritis, lupus, herpes simplex, herpes zoster, muscular dystrophy, Parkinson's disease, myasthenia gravis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Although PROven has been banned by the FDA, a similar mixture known as Horvi MS9 is sold legally in drugstores in Germany, the MS Society said.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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