Snakes are among the most feared creatures on earth. Despite their colorful appearance and ecological importance, some snakes’ venom can kill in minutes. The fear is however magnified by lack of knowledge about snakes. The fact is, a majority of snakes are non-venomous thus not harmful to humans. Out of about 400 snakes species in Africa only about 30 species are venomous. According to Bio-Ken snake farm, there are about 127 different snake species in Kenya out of which 24 species can cause human fatalities and another 10 species could cause a lot of pain while the remaining 93 are non-venomous. Lack of knowledge to distinguish which snakes are dangerous and which are not lead to general condemnation and fear of snakes.
Snakes play a critical role in balancing ecosystems. Naturally all snakes prey on small animals. As such they help control disease-carrying vermin and crop raiders like rats, mice, bats, and birds as well feed on slugs that cause diseases such as Bilharzia. Thus snakes are important in controlling pests in our surroundings.
Over the years, the number of snake bites in Kenya has been on the rise. This has been attributed to environmental factors, global warming and increase in population. Experts have argued that due to global warming, previously cooler habitats are now becoming more habitable to snakes. Clearing of forests and the escalating droughts have forced the snakes to go into people’s houses to look for water. Also, rising population has pushed people to clear large parcels of land typically habited by snakes, thus causing conflict. In addition, the killing of animals that prey on snakes may have led to a population imbalance.
Snake bites cause significant morbidity (illness) and mortality (death) worldwide. An estimated five million people worldwide are bitten by snakes annually, out of whom 100,000 die and 400,000 become permanently disabled. In Sub-Saharan Africa, snakebites cause 30,000 human fatalities per year, while an estimated 8,000 people undergo amputations. In Kenya, close to 500 human lives are lost annually as a result of snakebites while many more become permanently disfigured. Snakebites mainly affect people living in rural areas where there are no nearby health facilities. The high cost and scarcity of antivenom in many facilities prompts many rural communities to seek medical help from traditional healers or not seek help at all. Research from different scholars indicates that in Kenya, less than 30 % of the rural communities where the majority of snakebites occur seek medical treatment from hospitals. As a result, many incidences of snakebite and resulting morbidity and mortality go unrecorded.
Lack of accurate and reliable snakebite data in Sub-Saharan Africa has led to misunderstandings and as a consequence policy makers have largely ignored the problem or consider it to be low priority. This situation led World Health Organization (WHO) to declare snakebites a neglected tropical disease in 2009. According to Snake Bite Rescue Rehabilitation and Research Centre Kenya (SNABIRC), an estimated 300-500 people are admitted to Kenyan hospitals due to snakebites every month. A third of these patients lose their lives and the rest become disabled to varying degrees; approximately 5 percent end up with amputation. This clearly shows the magnitude of the problem.
Another challenge is that there is no antivenom manufactured in Kenya. Though there is milking of venom, all antivenom is imported from outside the country. The antivenom found in most hospitals is not species or area specific and the same drug is used across the country. However, according to health experts, antivenom must be species and area specific in order to be effective. Use of the wrong antivenom can be fatal.
Therefore, there is a dire need to address these shortcomings. This should include availing antivenom to the local health facilities in the high risk snakebite areas, subsidizing the cost and/or better supporting production of antivenom locally to ensure availability of the correct treatment. The policy should also include training health professionals on snake identification and treatment protocols and most importantly, awareness on preventive measures, how to identify and distinguish venomous and nonvenomous snakes and how to handle snake bites.
On 4th January 2014, the Kenya Wildlife Conservation and Management Act 2013 came into force. The Act awards Sh5 million for human death, KSh3 million for injury with permanent disability and a maximum of KSh2 million for other injuries depending on their extent. By December 2016 the claims from snakebites stood at KSh4.5 billion ($45 million). Consequently, The National Assembly committee on Environment and Natural Resources which is amending the act, is seeking to remove snakebite from the list of compensations. They argue that this will relieve tax payers from paying huge loses. However this will not help the future victims of snakebite. The big question remains to be seen as to what the government will do help the communities in high risk areas. We hope that appropriate measures are put in place to reduce the losses for all concerned.