Snakebites and antivenom in South Africa

As smallholders, we have to be aware of the dangers of snakes on our properties. When dealing with a snake bite from a potentially deadly snake, the only treatment is antivenom. Using antivenom is not easy, but in the right hands and at the right time it can be life-saving. This is the advice of the African Snakebite Institute (ASI).

Antivenom for snakebites was first used in South Africa in 1886 and local production started in small quantities in Pietermaritzburg in 1901, with most of the antivenom still being imported from the Pasteur Institute in Paris, France.

Rinkhals. Image: Medical Academic

In the 1920s, antivenom for bites from the Cape Cobra and Puff Adder were the only products being produced locally. Later, the Gaboon Adder and Rinkhals were added and by the 1970s, mamba, the Forest Cobra, Mozambique Spitting Cobra and Snouted Cobra all had antivenoms produced in South Africa.

In South Africa, anitvenom is created by the South African Vaccine Producers in Johannesburg using horses that are hyperimmunised using a single snake venom (Boomslang antivenom) or against venoms of a variety of species (polyvalent antivenom). This is done over an extended period of time, during which a small quantity of venom is injected into the animal and the quantity is increased over time as the animal builds up an immunity. Once immunized, plasma is collected from the horse and it then goes through a process to remove proteins, pyrogens and microbes.

Venom extraction.

According to ASI, snakebite victims are not automatically injected with antivenom, as most of them never experience symptoms severe enough to justify its use. Snakes have control over their venom glands and are reluctant to waste their venom on humans. They very often give ‘dry’ bites which result in no symptoms, or the snake might inject a little bit of venom that will cause discomfort or some mild symptoms but nothing serious.

Antivenom should only be used if there is a threat to life or limb, by a medical doctor and in a hospital environment.

In terms of dealing with snakes and your pets, the ASI says cats rarely get bitten, but dogs often try to kill a snake when they see one. While some dogs are quite efficient at killing snakes, they usually end up getting bitten.  In such an instance the dog must be taken to a vet immediately ~ there is no effective first aid. Giving a pet allergy tablets, milk, charcoal, raw eggs, or any other medication does not help at all.

Most dogs, after a bite, receive 2-4 vials of polyvalent antivenom and seem to recover well provided the antivenom is given sooner rather than later.

Top image: African Snakebite Institute

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