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Venomous Snakebites Plague Kitui County, Kenya

Scientists are racing to create anti venom as snake bite victims grow in Kenya due to forest decline.

Residents of Kitui County, Kenya, are living in perpetual fear as venomous snakes increasingly encroach on their settlements. The decline of forests due to logging and agricultural expansion, coupled with erratic climate patterns, drives these reptiles closer to human habitation 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,” explains villager Anna Kangali.

He added, “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.”

In 2019, Kangali’s daughter, Esther, suffered a snakebite that led to severe medical complications and a costly hospital stay.

Esther was taken to the nearest health centre after the bite and then a hospital, but both facilities lacked the necessary medication to treat the snakebite. She was then referred to Kenyatta National Hospital in Kenya’s capital. Unfortunately, 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, with medical bills of up to $3,000.

Augustine Wambua, another resident, is currently hospitalised after a puff adder bite while tending his goats. His family struggles with mounting medical expenses, highlighting the financial burden such incidents impose.

Wambua, acknowledging the human role in habitat encroachment, advocates for planting trees to provide natural shelters for snakes and reduce human encounters. “If snakes have shelter in forests, they won’t need to come near homes for shelter,” he says.

Climate change exacerbates the problem, impacting snake behavior and increasing human-snake conflicts. “We are having snakes come into our homes primarily to seek water or food,” says George Maranga of the Kenya Snakebite Research and Intervention Centre (KSRIC).

In Kenya, about 20,000 are bitten by snakes annually, with approximately 4,000 fatalities and 7,000 cases of paralysis or other complications. Despite importing antivenom from Mexico and India, about 50% of these are ineffective due to regional venom variations. Antivenoms are mostly region-specific, meaning those produced from venoms in one region might not effectively treat snakebites in a different region.

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

KSRIC, in partnership with the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, is developing a new generation of antivenom to improve treatment efficacy and reduce fatalities. This research involves immunising animals to produce antibodies, aiming to create more effective and affordable antivenom.

Maranga and his colleague, Fredrick Angotte, are undertaking 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.

The research is already at an advanced stage, aiming 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.

Efforts to educate communities on snakebite prevention and first aid are underway. KSRIC is also collaborating with communities to improve knowledge on how to handle snakes and how to perform first aid on victims. They are also training healthcare workers how to properly manage snake bites, but for many, these measures come too late. 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.

As Kitui County grapples with this ongoing threat, the need for effective antivenom and better healthcare infrastructure becomes increasingly urgent to save lives and alleviate the fear permeating these communities.

Melissa Enoch

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