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Of snake bites, bitter kola, and anti-snake venom

By Adetokunbo Abiola

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Asnake recently bit Lance Corporal Bercy Ogah, an officer of the Nigeria Air Force, NAF, while using a restroom in her flat at the NAF Base, Bill Clinton Drive, Abuja.
Ogah, who was attached to the Defence Intelligence Agency, drove her children and a relation staying with her to her neighbour’s house before visiting the Nigerian Air Force hospital, where she gave up the ghost.
Ogah’s case mirrored the situation with snake bites in the country. The Minister of State, Federal Ministry of Health, Sen. Olorunnimbe Mamora, disclosed that Nigeria records an average of 15,000 to 20,000 cases of snake bites every year. Out of the figure, about 2000 people die and between 1,700 and 2,000 people have one leg or arm amputated to save their lives following a snakebite. Each year, approximately 5.4 million people are bitten by a snake globally, of whom 2.7 million are injected with snake-bite poison.
“Snake bites affects the lives of many people and most of the victims are rural women, children, peasant farmers, herdsmen and hunters,” Mamora said.
In June, residents and farmers in Duguri, a community in Alkaleri Local Government Area of Bauchi, cried over frequent snake bites, with no fewer than 10 people in the community suffering from snake bites daily.
One of the victims, 18-year-old Rabiatu Adamu had felt a prick on her foot during a visit to her father’s farmland to fetch firewood, but thought that she stepped on thorns.
While some of the victims receive local treatments, others sought medical attention in neighbouring states of Plateau or Gombe, 178-kilometre trip to Bauchi.
“The snake bites cases increased recently as a result of excessive rainfall, leading to more morbidity and deaths connected with inadequate quantities of anti-snake-venom (AVS). States with the most cases of snakebite in Nigeria are Gombe, Plateau, Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Nasarawa, Enugu, Kogi, Kebbi, Oyo, Benue, and Taraba,” Mamora said.
These states, needless to say lack anti-venoms to tackle snake bites. Fatai Oyediran , Deputy Director/ Head, Snakebite Division Envenoming Unit, NTDs, Division, said despite the enormity of snake bites just 5,000 doses of anti-venom are available annually. He said no fewer than 10,000 victims of snake bites in Nigeria lack access to treatment, even as Neglected Tropical Diseases, NTDs, continue to struggle for attention in the country.
In May this year, Anthony Oregon lacked access to treatment. He died after he was bitten by a poisonous snake in Edo State. According to Shadrack Okpomhe, someone called the deceased to inform him that pigs were feeding on his crops, and on getting there, a snake bit him.
He’s not unlike other victims of snake bites in Nigeria, faced with very slim chances of survival, as the prices of anti-snake venom have gone up drastically. A News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) correspondent who visited some snake bite treatment centres in Plateau reported that the cost of treatment had risen drastically, with many victims struggling to foot hospital bills. A vial of ASV used to cost between N23,000 and N25,000, currently, it costs more than N45,000, almost double its former price.
“It is a hard situation. It is particularly regrettable coming at a time when a high number of cases are being recorded,” Nyam Azi, a medical officer with the JUTH Comprehensive Medical Centre, a specialist snake bite treatment outfit in Langtang, Plateau State, told NAN.
“There are peak periods for snake bites – the heat season, planting and harvest time. We are entering the peak of harvest season, so the numbers are going up. We record about 50 cases per month; sometimes we get 20 cases per week. This month alone, we recorded about 40 and the month is not over yet,” he said.
In November, 2017, 250 victims of snake bite died in Plateau and Gombe States, following an acute scarcity of snake anti-venoms in the country.
The figure represented the number of confirmed deaths from three snake treatment centres – General Hospital, Kaltungo, Ali Mega Pharmacy, Gombe and Comprehensive Medical Centre, Zamko, Plateau State.
In 2014, Boko Haram militants fled after suffering constant snake bites and bee stings, which some believe were retaliations for their violence. They fled from deep within the Nigerian forest in the northeast of the country after incessant snake bites and bee stings became too much for them to bear, according to media reports.
Two suspected Boko Haram fighters were captured by the Nigerian civilian JTF army after they fled from the Sambisa Forest, in Borno State. The gunmen reportedly said they were being attacked by mystical bees and snakes that had already killed many other insurgents.
Solutions, however, abound for attacks by snakes and mystical bees. According to the Whistler, the demand for bitter kola is increasing daily in Enugu and its environs because of increasing cases of snake bites, following an interview with a dealer.
A dealer, Meletus Okoye, from Ebonyi State, also said bitter kola is a portent antidote against poison.
In his words, “The quantity we sell at N100 before is now N200. The demand is high. Somebody told me that he throws them around his house on a monthly basis to kill or scare snakes from coming closer to his house. It works.
“Some also buy to prevent being infected by poison. They constantly eat it. It works. Bitter kola is a mysterious plant. We buy them from western parts of the country. It doesn’t grow much in Enugu and even the entire southeast.”
A bitter kola consumer, 80-year-old Uroko Ekebe, from Nkanu, said, the product “neutralises snake venoms, no matter the species of the snake. The venom can’t circulate in the blood of somebody who eats bitter kola all the time.
A herbalist, Onyema Okenyi, said, “For snake prevention, dry and grind bitter kola into powdered forms and spread around the compound. Any snake that gets in contact with it dies instantly. Also, when snake bites you, simply chew and swallow it quickly to neutralise the effects of the poison within minutes.”
Speaking on the control of snakebite, Oyediran encouraged Nigerians to plant species of plants that repel snakes, discouraged the dumping of refuse near homes, rearing of animals and birds that are known to eat snakes. Perhaps, if we do this, the spectra of snake bite will go down.

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