Snakebites: Major sub-Saharan Africa Public Health Issue
A snakebite epidemic continues in Sub-Saharan African nations particularly Nigeria amid its unabated cases that kill tens of thousands of people annually.
In Nigeria, around 250 people were reportedly killed over a three-week period in the central states of Gombe and Plateau. An estimated 32,000 people in the Sub-Saharan region are killed each year by snakebites, and a further 100,000 are left disabled, often by severe injuries that require limb amputations.
The number speaks about the severity of the crisis. Given this fact, is snakebite epidemic a neglected crisis in the region?
According to Thea Litschka-Koen, a businesswoman who established the Swaziland Antivenom Foundation to provide treatment and public education, neglect is at the heart of the crisis.
“Snakebite is a grossly and tragically neglected disease because it affects poor people who have no voice,” she says.
Dr. Jean-Philippe Chippaux, a leading venom expert and founder of the African Society of Venomology (ASV), also cited that neglect is shown in a “lack of interest in the issue” among governments across the region.
Chippaux explained, “This is a disease involving the poorest farmers…for which the treatment is expensive and poorly understood by the health authorities, health personnel and populations,” says Chippaux. “In these conditions, it does not appear on the agenda of health authorities.”
Saharan Africa is home to many of the world’s deadliest snakes, including the black mamba and the carpet viper. Snakebites are a major public health issue in sub-Saharan Africa.
There are factors that exacerbate the crisis. One is the rainy seasons bring out venomous snakes to hunt and breed. This hazardous time puts agricultural workers at risk of snakebites as they do farm work.
Snakebite victims also have a tendency to resort to faith healers instead of going directly to medical centers. The result can be disastrous in most cases that ends in the death of victims.
Lack of medical facilities with specialist staff trained to diagnose and treat snakebites is another factor. In fact, The lack of resources and expertise often results in patients receiving the wrong antivenom. This is a factual case in the region as affirmed by Litschka-Koen
“There is a massive problem of fridges stocked with products that shouldn’t be there,” she says. “Either they are inadequate or don’t cover the right species. They might be cheaper but they won’t neutralize venom or save lives.”
Appropriate care and suitable antivenom are crucial to prevent deaths. It is said that up to 80% of disabilities and deaths could be avoided, if medical care and antivenom were readily available.
Meet The Venomous Snakes in Africa
The African continent is home to many different snake species, some of which are amongst the world’s most dangerous.
The deadly snakes include black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis), carpet viper (Echis ocellatus), the West African carpet, and puff adder (Bitis arietans).
The black mamba is the most feared for its aggressive nature when cornered and its large size. Black mambas are the fastest of all indigenous African snakes, and often strike more than once. Without anti-venom treatment, it is almost 100% certain that the victim will die, usually within seven to 15 hours.
The carpet viper is often cited as being responsible for the highest number of snakebite-related fatalities in Africa. This is incredible for a snake with a relatively small range, but it can be very deadly.
The puff adder is known as Africa’s deadliest snake because it is responsible for the most human fatalities. This is due to the snake’s wide distribution, its prevalence in populated areas and its relatively aggressive nature.