Pills containing rattlesnake meat are blamed for at least three recent deaths from salmonellosis in Los Angeles County, public health officials said.

Sold as a Hispanic folk remedy for a range of maladies including cancer and acne, the tainted pills can worsen medical problems and cause death, said Dr. Roshan Reporter of the county Department of Health Services."As far as we know, there is no medical benefit from them - and there certainly is a high risk of infection and death," Reporter said Monday.

In otherwise healthy adults, salmonella poisoning can cause fever, diarrhea, abdominal pain and sometimes vomiting. The bacterial infection can turn deadly in infants, elderly people and people with weakened immune systems.

At least four people have been hospitalized in recent months for salmonellosis caused by the rattlesnake capsules, also known as "polvo de vibora," "carne de vibora," and "vibora de cascabel."

Public health investigators suspect two men and a woman died of salmonella poisoning after they took capsules in hopes of treating their cancer, Reporter said.

In 1987, there were slightly more than 30 reported cases of salmonellosis caused by the strain of bacteria found in rattlesnake pills. The number of cases has dropped in recent years, bringing the annual average to about 15 a year, officials said.

No individual source of the pills has been singled out, Reporter said. They are readily available in pharmacies that serve the Hispanic community, as well as at swap meets and botanicas, she said.

The pills contain a strain of salmonella that reptiles can carry and transmit to humans. County investigators are not sure yet whether seven other cases of salmonellosis this year were caused by rattlesnake pills.

"You could get it from handling a reptile," Reporter said.

Reporter cautioned that reptiles should not be kept as pets in households with young children and people with weakened immune systems.

The rattlesnake strain is not the same as Salmonella enteritidis, which county records show has caused more than 700 cases of food poisoning this year.