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June 16, 2024
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Kenya: Race for Antidote as Snakebite Deaths Rise

The residents in Kitui county, Kenya live in constant fear of venomous snakebites as dangerous snakes move closer to their settlement.

As the forests around them dwindle due to logging and agricultural expansion, and the climate patterns become increasingly unpredictable, the reptiles are encroaching on human territory with alarming frequency.

“When there is a lot of rain, snakes are carried by floods to our homes. Snakes are in the mountains, when there are no rains, they come down to look for food,” says villager Anna Kangali.

“Many chickens have been killed by snakes looking for food and now we can’t eat those chickens. The snakes also bite donkeys and cows and now you can’t know what to treat the cow with because we don’t have the right medicine. So if the snake bite medicine can come to the grassroots we will all get help because our donkeys also die from the snake bites. When you see the donkey has died and you notice a rotten spot, we know that was a snake bite. So if we have medicine to treat snake bites it would greatly help.”

But it’s not just livestock that is suffering.

In 2019, Kangali’s daughter, Esther – a 32-year-old mother of five – suffered a devastating snake bite while working on the farm.

Esther was taken to the nearest health centre and then a hospital, but both facilities lacked the necessary medication to treat the snakebite.

Esther was referred to Kenyatta National Hospital in Kenya’s capital. Tragically, by the time she received treatment, it was too late to save her leg. The delay in medical care also led to cognitive impairment, further compounding her suffering.

After enduring four months of treatment and rehabilitation, Esther was finally discharged from the hospital. However, the ordeal had taken a heavy toll on her family. Medical bills had skyrocketed to $3,000, an amount they could not afford to pay. Fortunately, their local leader intervened, clearing the bill and easing the financial burden on the family.

Augustine Wambua, a 41-year-old resident of Kitui, is currently in Kitui Referral Hospital following a puff adder bite sustained while tending his goats in a degraded forest earlier this month. The outcome is still unknown.

For Wambua and his family, the ordeal is twofold as they grapple not only with the fear of Wambua’s health but also with the financial strain imposed by the costly treatment.

“I have personally spent a lot of money. Because every lab test is expensive. And every poison test is paid for. Because since I was bitten, my lab results show poison, poison, poison. And every injection is an extra expense. And now the whole cost is mounting high and my people are straining a lot and it was an abrupt incident,” he says.

Wambua doesn’t blame the snake for the unfortunate encounter. Instead,

he feels that he encroached upon the animal’s habitat. In his eyes, the snake was merely defending its territory,

“You can’t fault the snake. It was taking shelter and it wasn’t attacking me for my goats nor did I find it in my goat pen. I encountered it in the forest. So it is advisable to grow trees, especially in our lands along the fences where we graze our animals to increase their habitats. Especially now it’s raining, because if those snakes have shelter in the forests they won’t have to come near homes for shelter,” he says.

Wambua now encourages people to plant trees as a way to expand habitats for snakes, thereby reducing the likelihood of encounters with humans.

Climate change is reshaping ecosystems around the world, and snakes are significantly affected by these shifts. Snakes rely on external temperatures to regulate their body heat. Consequently, climate change has a profound impact on their behaviour, physiology and survival.

“As a result of human population, we are causing adverse effects on their habitats, like forest destruction and eventually we are having snakes come into our homes primarily to seek for water or food and eventually we have the conflict between humans and the snakes,” says George Maranga, a senior herpetologist at Kenya Snakebite Research and Intervention Centre (KSRIC).

“We are seeing that climate change is also affecting them a lot because when there is no rain for quite a number of times snakes are forced to seek alternative sources of water whereby they seek to human settlements or habitats to seek for water needs. As well whenever it rains a lot and it floods all over the place, the only safe place sometimes like dry areas is in our houses,” Maranga adds.

According to the Institute of Primate Research (IPR) Kenya, about 20,000 people are bitten by snakes annually in Kenya. Among these cases, an estimated 4,000 result in fatalities, while 7,000 individuals experience paralysis or suffer from various health complications as a consequence of snakebites.

According to KSRIC, about 60% of snakebite victims do not seek hospital treatment, opting instead for ineffective traditional methods.

Kenya imports antivenom from Mexico and India. However, 50% of the imported antivenoms are ineffective. Antivenoms are mostly region-specific, meaning those produced from venoms in one region might not effectively treat snakebites in a different region.

KSRIC in collaboration with the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, is actively working on developing an anti-venom aimed at significantly reducing deaths from snakebites.

This partnership combines local expertise and international research to create effective treatments that can save lives and improve the management of snakebite incidents in affected regions.

Maranga and his colleague, Fredrick Angotte, are equipped with tools and expertise as they undertake the dangerous task of extracting venom from one of Africa’s most venomous snakes, the black mamba.

Their mission is to harvest the venom needed to produce the next generation of anti-venom for snakebite victims. This life-saving endeavour aims to enhance medical treatments and improve outcomes for those affected by venomous snakebites across East Africa.

“We are searching and developing what we call new generational snakebite therapies. The current conventional antivenoms are quite old and suffer certain inherited deficiencies. So by investing in the research and development of these new snakebite therapies that will have certain better properties as compared to the current antivenoms, we then hope to improve the management and the outcomes of snakebite patients,” says George Omondi, senior research scientist at Institute of Primate Research and head of KSRIC.

The research is already at an advanced stage, involving immunizing camels, baboons, and cows to raise antibodies for the future development of antivenoms.

The research aims to enhance the efficacy and availability of antivenoms and decrease the number of vials needed per patient at a more affordable price. Currently, patients require up to five vials of antivenom, which can cost between $69.93 to $104.90.

As climate change becomes more erratic and snakebite cases increase, KSRIC is also collaborating with communities to improve knowledge on snakebite prevention, how to handle snakes and how to perform first aid on victims. They are also training healthcare workers how to properly manage snake bites.

The measures come too late for many. Ruth Munge lost her husband in 2020 after he was bitten by a snake while they were sleeping. He was rushed to Mwingi Level 4 Hospital, where he was told he needed an X-ray to determine the problem. However, the hospital did not have electricity and could only provide him with pain medication. On the fourth day, Benjamin Munge passed away at the age of 43


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