SA increases production of snake antivenom but shortage not over yet
The National Health Laboratory Service has distributed snake antivenom to 124 facilities countrywide but said on Wednesday that demand was still outstripping supply.
The country has been hit by an acute snake antivenom shortage after South African Vaccine Producers, the facility that makes snake antivenom, was hit by a series of setbacks including equipment failure caused by rolling blackouts.
Some of SA’s foremost trauma and snakebite experts have made an urgent appeal to the minister of health, Joe Phaahla, to intervene and make sure that snake antivenom stocks are brought up to acceptable levels.
National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) spokesperson Mzi Gcukumana said the requests for purchasing antivenom still exceeded supply.
“We are increasing the production of snakebite antivenom. Snakebite antivenom has been delivered to a number of public and private health facilities, as well as veterinarians.”
Since January, he said, they had distributed antivenom to 11 facilities in the Free State, 40 in the Western Cape, nine in Mpumalanga, 11 in Limpopo, 20 in Gauteng, seven in the Eastern Cape, 12 in KwaZulu-Natal, eight in North West and six in the Northern Cape.
“Every snakebite victim should be able to access antivenom through these 124 facilities nationwide. In the event of an emergency, please phone 071 680 9897 to be directed to the nearest health facility,” Gcukumana said.
Deep South Reptile Rescue’s Steve Meighan had some tips on safety and snakes.
“In light of our current antivenom shortage,” he said, “it is very important that we remember our basic snake awareness and safety to avoid conflict situations between ourselves, our pets, and snakes. Prevention is always better than cure.”
Meighan said it was important to be aware of what attracts snakes to houses.
“Snakes look for three main things: food, water, and shelter from the heat as well as the cold. There are no scientifically proven effective snake repellents available. Please do not waste money on this or any other home remedies such as Jeyes Fluid, petrol, old oil, garlic, or any of the other old wives’ tales.
“Snakes feed on a variety of smaller animals like birds, mice, and even other reptiles. The main thing which attracts snakes to houses is rodents. Snakes are attracted to places where there are a lot of mice or rats. Bird feeders will also attract snakes as they may seek to feed on the birds. Water features or other sources of drinking water will also attract rodents and snakes.
“A good way to keep snakes on the outskirts of a property is to place water dishes around the outside borders away from the areas you or your animals use. That will encourage mice to drink there and the snakes will follow them.
“It is important to keep your home and property clean and well maintained. Store your food items in closed Tupperware in a cupboard. Keep your rubbish under control, in bags and in bins. Keep your storage areas and garages clear and tidy so that rodents do not move in looking to nest or feed. Keep your garden maintained and tidy and try to limit leaving animal feeds in places where mice can come for a free meal.
“Things like rubble and garden refuse will become ideal nesting spots for rodents and provide shelter for snakes looking to escape the cold in winter or heat in summer; if you leave the doors open, snakes may enter, looking for shade.
“Snakes are cold-blooded. That means they depend on their environment to control their temperature because they cannot warm up or cool down the same as we do. Temperatures over 40℃ for extended periods are fatal to the majority of snakes because they cannot sweat to cool down. They will look for shade and that is often when they enter houses and buildings looking for a cool place to escape.
“If it happens that you are confronted by a snake in your home or garage, stay calm. If you have pets, get them away from the snake. If the snake is outside, call your pets inside and stay 2m to 5m away from the snake. Do not approach the snake or try to throw anything at it, or catch or kill it.
“Remember, all wildlife is protected in South Africa. Keep your safe distance. Try to keep an eye on the snake and call your local professional snake handler to come and safely relocate the snake.
“If you or a pet get bitten by a snake, do not waste any time on remedies or trying to get advice on Facebook. Get the victim to the closest emergency room as soon as possible. Call ahead to let them know the situation and try to keep as calm as you possibly can. Do not try to catch the snake. Medical staff will treat your symptoms.
“Do not cut, tie, squeeze, or put any funny concoctions on the bite. Remove any tight clothing or jewellery and get to an ER as soon as possible. Keep in mind that antivenom (when available) is only used in less than 30% of snake bites. A lot of the time bites can be treated symptomatically.”
In the outdoors
Meighan said: “When on hikes or walking on trails with the dogs, please be sensible. Keep your dogs on a leash and don’t go walking in areas that are off-limits to dogs, such as mountain trails and wilderness areas. Keep the dogs on a leash until you are in a safe, clear area that is safe for dogs and our wildlife, then let them off to run and play where you can clearly see what is around.
“If you see them chasing things or sticking their heads into bushes, call them away in case they find something they will regret sniffing.
“During this antivenom shortage crisis, it is important that we remember that snakes are extremely important to us and our environment… the current situation doesn’t mean anyone should panic. We do not have any more snakes or snakebites than we usually get. We need to be extra careful and put common sense and safety first.”
He said that when you encounter a snake at your home, “Call a professional handler to relocate any snake on your property. Do not try to make your own plan to catch or kill snakes. That is how bites happen.
“Find out who your local snake catcher is and save their number on your phone. Ask them if they have a call-out fee as we are not funded for what we do. Make sure you have your local emergency numbers on your phone. Save them to speed dial for fast dialling in an emergency,” he said.
Who to contact
In Cape Town, Deep South Reptile Rescue is available 24/7 on 064 681 0779.
To find a catcher in your area, download the free ASI app on your phone from www.africansnakebiteinstitute.co.za. It has a nationwide list of catchers in all areas as well as features like snake identification services.
The NHLS number if a patient is struggling to acquire antivenom is 071 680 9897.
For snake awareness courses contact Steve Meighan from Deep South Reptile Rescue on 064 681 0779 (Western Cape) or Arno Naude from Snakebite Assist on 083 739 9303. DM/MC