TACKLING DEATHS FROM SNAKE BITES

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The authorities should pay more attention to the menace

The recent disclosure by the Minister of State for Health, Olorunnimbe Mamora, that an average of 20,000 cases of snake bites are recorded annually in Nigeria should worry critical stakeholders. “The Carpet Viper is the one responsible for most, about 90 per cent of bites and 60 per cent of snakebite deaths,” said Mamora. “The snake bites cases increased recently because of excessive rainfall, leading to more morbidity and deaths connected with inadequate quantities of anti-snake venom.” States with the most cases of snakebite are Gombe, Plateau, Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Nasarawa, Enugu, Kogi, Kebbi, Oyo, Benue, and Taraba.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), snakebite is a neglected public health problem in Nigeria with a mortality rate of 12 per cent. Rural populations are frequent victims as they go about their daily food production and animal rearing activities, and sometimes even in the comfort of their homes. Unfortunately, many of these snakebite cases go unreported and thus do not appear in official epidemiological statistics. That explains why health workers with little or no formal training in the management of snakebite often take it upon themselves to deal with the challenge.

Regardless, guidelines for the prevention and clinical management of snakebite in Africa have been developed by WHO/AFRO with contributions from technical experts. Prepared at the request of the federal government in 2004, the guidelines are meant to assist health workers to improve medical care for snakebite victims; they also serve as a source of information for the public on issues related to snakes and snakebite which can be deadly if not treated quickly.

While the right anti-venom can save a snakebite victim’s life, getting to an emergency room as quickly as possible is also important. If properly treated, many snake bites will not have serious effects. But the cost seems prohibitive. According to medical practitioners, the average cost of snake treatment and management of a victim is about N62,000. Since most of the victims are unable to afford this amount because they are mainly subsistence farmers, it is important for the government to subsidise the treatment or provide it for free and make the anti-venom available in primary healthcare facilities. ‎ This is a good reason for the government to strengthen the nation’s clinics and hospitals as well as engage in health education as the main preventive measure.

In 2011, the federal government said it would make available and affordable Anti-Snake Venom (ASV) which led to the establishment of the Nigeria/UK Echitab Study Group to research and develop ASV, as well as look into ways of providing free treatment for snakebite victims. The inauguration of the structure that houses the Echitab Snakebite Control and Research Centre in Kaltungo in Gombe State was part of the collaborative efforts aimed at finding lasting solutions to the menace of snakebite in the country. It has over the years developed three different brands of ASV, using venom extracted from local snakes purposely to address the Nigerian situation.

While the idea to increase research activities and prepare room for the development of ASV in the country is good, government at all levels also needs to embark on sustained public enlightenment, particularly among dwellers of rural communities. They should be told how to prevent snakebites and what to do as first aid when someone is bitten. Besides, to ensure the availability of the ASV before local production of the drugs begins, government should import large quantities. It is also important to train medical personnel to effectively manage cases of snakebite early since the venom usually worsens the health of victims by the minute and increases their likelihood of succumbing to death because of its potency.