Saving lives with venomous snakes

Saturday June 30 2018

BIO-KEN SNAKE FARM, black mamba

A black mamba. Bio-Ken extracts venom from cobras, mambas and vipers to make the life-saving antivenom. PHOTO | COURTESY OF BIO-KEN SNAKE FARM 

By KARI MUTU
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The Bio-Ken Snake Farm in the Kenyan Coastal town of Watamu is more than just a sanctuary for rescued snakes and reptiles. It is the only facility in East Africa that collects venom from poisonous snakes to make antivenom serum used to treat snakebite.

“Ninety-five per cent of the snakes are collected after calls, and would most likely be killed if we didn’t remove them,” says Royjan Taylor.

He is a director of Bio-Ken and the founder of the James Ashe Antivenom Trust (JAAT), both located in Watamu, Kilifi County.

At the farm, the snakes are housed in glass-fronted boxes. Behind the scenes, the team at Bio-Ken regularly extracts venom from species such as cobras, mambas and vipers to make the life-saving antivenom.

Taylor told me about Salome, a seven-year-old girl who was bitten by a snake as she was running home with her siblings last month.

BIO-KEN SNAKE FARM, black mamba

Royjan Taylor, director of Bio-Ken and the founder of the James Ashe Antivenom Trust (JAAT), both located in Watamu, Kilifi County. PHOTO | COURTESY OF BIO-KEN SNAKE FARM

From the description of the snake, Salome’s father realised that it was a black mamba, one of the most venomous species in Africa.

“Black mamba bites are incredibly rare but when they happen it’s not a joke. Puff adder bites are far more common,” says Taylor, a third generation Kenyan and snake enthusiast since childhood.

By the time Salome arrived at the Coast General Hospital in Mombasa several hours later, she had to be put on a respirator to keep her alive. The antivenom administered at the hospital is from Indian snakes and was not effective so her condition deteriorated.

“Antivenom made in India is not going to help you if you are bitten by an African snake,” explains Taylor.

The antivenom in many Kenyan hospitals is from Asian snake species. Consequently, many victims die and those who survive often lose the affected part of their body to gangrene.

The Bio-Ken team hopes to stem the crisis. With the assistance of the Kilifi County government, Taylor dispatched vials of the correct serum in an ambulance; the antivenom saved Salome’s life. “But other treatments and an extensive hospital stay were required,” said Taylor.

In Kenya, snakes are feared even though the majority are not poisonous. Snakes are beneficial for controlling rodents and other vermin in homes and farms.

Bio-Ken teaches communities how to live with snakes, stocks medical facilities with antivenom, and trains health workers in how to deal with snakebites.

JAAT is the only facility in Kenya that stocks the right antivenom, and the farm supplies medical facilities across the country. The venom they collect is sent to South African Vaccine Producers, the only manufacturers in the world of effective African snakebite antivenom.

According to the World Health Organisation, snakebite affects 5.4 million people globally each year. In Kenya, 1,000 people die of snakebite every year and more are left with permanent disability.

The most affected are rural communities with limited access to medical services. Treatment costs $125 per vial in addition to other medication.

Fewer than 50 vials of polyvalent antivenom are available in Kenya at present, all stocked by JAAT.

Taylor estimates that Kenya needs about 3,000 vials annually, at approximately Ksh 50million ($500,000). To meet this need, Bio-Ken would have to milk between 30 and 40 snakes of each venomous species every three weeks, more than the total number of snakes they have.

One way to achieve this is by partnering with the Kenya Wildlife Service to capture wild snakes for venom production, which does not harm the snake in any way.

Snakebites comprise more than 60 per cent of compensation claims from human-wildlife conflict.

“With enough antivenom and systems in place to treat these patients, you can save limbs and lives,” says Taylor.

He adds, “We’ve had 100 per cent success in treating presented snakebite cases in Watamu town. Why can’t we do that for Kilifi County, for Kenya and East Africa?”