Residents go for unorthodox measures to treat snakebites

Friday, July 17th, 2020 00:00 |
A snake handler extracts venom to produce anti-venom, the most potent cure for bites. Photo/PD/FILE

Residents in areas heavily infested by snakes are using unconventional methods to treat snakebites due to acute shortage of anti-venom medication.

Those living in Kilifi, Baringo, Kitui, Wajir, Garissa, Machakos, Marsabit, Isiolo, Makueni, Taita Taveta and Tharaka Nithi counties are forced to chop off body parts or burn the affected area due to lack of anti-venom.

 With no actual figures, various organisations led by Wildlife Direct estimates there could be 1,000 annual deaths in Kenya with the lack of anti-venom posing the biggest challenge.

Kilifi county is among the snakebite prone areas and shockingly; local health facilities are using supportive treatment, such as painkillers and fluids, to treat snakebites.

 Shadrack Kombe, a snake handler at Gede Ruins Museums of Kenya says puff adders, black spitting cobras, black mambas and the boomslang are behind most of the cases.

Due to lack of anti-venom in local health facilities, Kombe and other handlers are prescribing ‘crude’ methods to treat snakebites.

“If someone is bitten on the toe or a finger, chop it off to avoid the venom spreading which might result in death,” said Kombe.


In a situation where the area affected cannot be chopped off, Kombe recommended the victim to extend the area of the bite by cutting to allow the venom to flow out with blood.

“If victims cannot perform the above methods, they can use petrol or any source of fire to burn the affected area to kill tissues hence preventing the venom from spreading,” he added.

Kombe who has been handling snakes for the last nine years is a victim of snakebite and reveals he treated it by burning the affected area.

He warned victims against tying the area of the bite as it will lead to concentration of the poison hence might lead to amputation of the affected part.

“If one is bitten here at Gede Ruins, we will be forced to drive 12km away to access a hospital with anti-venom.”

According to medics, one dose of anti-venom to treat a snake bite costs about Sh26,000 per patient.

Unfortunately, the little venom produced in the country is exported to South Africa for manufacture of anti-venom drugs.

Kombe meanwhile said that snakes typically shun humans and only bite when they feel threatened.

“Venomous snakes have two fangs on the upper side of the mouth while others have two fangs on the lower side and kill after a long time. Toothless snakes are non-venomous,” he said.

Punitive methods

James Charo a resident, terms some of the methods used by the locals as punitive but necessary in times of distress and desperation.

“With no health facilities in sight, death is at our doorstep. There should be a serious soul-searching for our leaders to save as from snakes,” he said.

Albert Otieno, a curator at the National Museum of Kenya said though snakes are not widely hunted, their numbers are still declining due to deforestation and climate change causing the deterioration of their habitats and a declining amount of available prey.

He said there are almost 171 snake species found in Kenya; and luckily only a small percentage of these are venomous.

“World Snake Day is celebrated on July 16 to raise awareness about the different types of snake species and the important role they play in maintaining ecological balance,” said Otieno.

Otieno said puff adders are the main cause of injuries and deaths in Kenya because they are nocturnal and well camouflaged.

Puff-Udder venom is potently cytotoxic, causing severe pain, swelling, blistering and in many cases severe tissue damage.

“While most snakes will slither away to avoid people, the puff adder relies on its camouflage to avoid detection because it does not move fast,” he said.

He added the venom of the black mamba usually takes hours to cause death, and it can easily be prevented by the administration of anti-venom. Under the Kenya Wildlife Conservation and Management Act 2013, deaths resulting from any animal attack qualify for compensation of a maximum Sh5 million, while those who survive with injuries get up to Sh2 million. 

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