10 November 2017

Nigeria: Senate Probes Health Ministry Over 250 Snakebite Deaths

Abuja — Senate yesterday directed its Committee on Health to institute an inquiry into the death of 250 victims of snake bites within the past three weeks in the snake belt states of Borno, Adamawa, Taraba, Gombe and Plateau.

The victims were said to have lost their lives due to the unavailability of anti-snake venom to treat them.

The senators want the Ministry of Health to explain why it failed to supply anti-snake venom to treatment centres and other health centres in the country, especially in the Northern region where cases of snake bites are rampant.

In the meantime, the Senate has urged the minister of Health, Professor Isaac Adewole, to mandate the ministry, as a matter of urgency, to procure and supply enough anti-snake venom to the treatment centres at Kaltungo, Langtang and Bambur.

The lawmakers also mandated the ministry to initiate steps towards the local production of the anti-snake venom.

These resolutions followed a motion by Senator Joshua Lidani (PDP, Gombe South) entitled, "Alarming Increase in the Rate of Deaths of Victims of Snake Bites Due to Scarcity of Anti-Snake Venom".

Senator Lidani told his colleagues that the ministry stopped the supply of anti-snake venom to health centres since last year, causing a rise in the number of deaths from snake bites especially in the snake belt states of Borno, Adamawa, Taraba, Gombe and Plateau due to the absence of the life-saving drug.

He expressed the Senate's concern that 91 victims died within the past three weeks as a result of their inability to get treatment in these areas.

The lawmaker noted that there were only three snake bite treatment centres established by the federal government in the North, namely Kaltungo in Gombe State; Zamko, Langtang in Plateau State and Bambur in Taraba State, catering for the numerous victims of snake bites in the area.

He wondered why the Federal Ministry of Health, which used to supply the anti-snake venom to the three centres, stopped doing so since last year.

According to him, "The Gombe State Government had been supplying the anti-snake venom worth N8.5 million every quarter to the treatment centre at Kaltungo but because of the numerous patients coming from the neighbouring states, the quantity of anti-snake venom has been inadequate and patients have resorted to buying from pharmaceutical shops at exorbitant rates."

Senator Lidani added that the Senate was "alarmed that the suppliers of the anti-snake venom, who used to import them from UK and South Africa, have been unable to import these vaccines adequately and, consequently, patients have resorted to traditional means which are unsafe and unreliable.

He revealed that an ampoule of anti-snake venom costs N35, 000 and noted that no fewer than three ampoules dosage was required for the treatment - a sum, he said, most of the peasant farmers in those areas could not afford.

He went on: "Sometime in the 1990's, the federal government, in partnership with the United Kingdom, the ECHITAB Group and the University of Liverpool and Costa Rica, agreed to undertake a research into the snake bite and production of suitable anti-snake venom with a view to transferring the technology towards local production of the anti-snake venom.

"The government of President Olusegun Obasanjo had approved the establishment of the factory for the production of anti-snake venom in Gombe State but nothing has been done in furtherance of that approval."

He lamented that no pharmaceutical company was producing the life-saving drug in the country.

In his contribution, Deputy Senate Minority Leader, Emmanuel Bwacha (PDP, Taraba South) noted that many of the snake bite deaths were unreported.

"Periodically, lives are being lost and in most cases, these lives are lost without being reported, yet they are citizens of Nigeria.

"I think Nigeria has attained a level where we should be able to find solutions to this, either through scientific research or provide sufficient medicine that will attend to this problem once they come up, otherwise we are being embarrassed daily.

"We should adopt a proactive measure to tackle this matter. As a parliament, we owe it a duty to attend to this and ensure we provide a long lasting solution to bring to an end, the threat posed to lives of citizens who reside in the area", he said.

In his remarks, Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, who presided over the session, said, "We support any initiative that will protect the life and property of citizens. It is important we begin to develop technologies that will eradicate the snake completely and produce some of the medications. We need to spend some money to ensure that snakes are eradicated."

However, the minister of Health, Prof Isaac Adewole, had in his response on Monday, said the ministry still had some vials of anti-snake venom in stock from the 2016 procurement from which states and other treatment centres were supplied upon request.

According to him, "the states in question have refused to comply with the new procedure of request, hence their inability to access the product from the ministry."

The statement also noted that five states had so far made requests and had been issued the vials for the treatment of victims in the last four months, the last on September 6, 2017.

The health minister also called on snake bite endemic states to invest in the procurement of anti-snake venom for their people, warning that the federal government could not continue to procure and distribute it free to states indefinitely as being currently practised.

"The federal government is however working on a Public Private Partnership arrangement for the local production of anti-snake bite venom which will make the product available, affordable and accessible," he added.

Meanwhile, the Plateau State commissioner for Health, Dr Kuden Kemshak, has faulted the report that 280 people died as a result of snake bites in the country, saying the figure was exaggerated.

The commissioner, however, told our correspondent in Jos on phone that the country faces shortage of anti-snake venom.

According to him, the incidence of snake bites is rampant especially now due to the dry season, which is harvest time.

He further noted that the entire country was finding it difficult to access anti-snake venom.

He pointed out that the Plateau State government had contacted Dr Nandul Durfa, who is from Plateau State and managing director, EchiTAB Study Ltd, distributors of EchiTAB Anti-Snake Venom (ASV) in Africa, who had promised to provide the anti-snake venom in the next six days - because it has to follow due process.

Kuden further noted that he had also contacted the chief medical director (CMD), Jos University Teaching Hospital (JUTH) and was told that the hospital was also facing challenges in accessing anti-snake venom.

He said the state government, through the Ministry of Information, had been carrying out awareness campaigns in rural areas, warning the residents to always wear their boots and hand gloves whenever they go to their farms.

"I always advise the public, especially people in the rural areas during harvest - because the incident of snake bite is very high, to avoid digging rat holes whereby they put their hands into it to look for rats and in the process they get bitten by snake," he said

Many children, aged between seven and 10, are currently being treated after being bitten by snakes in rabbit holes at the Jos University Teaching Hospital (JUTH), Comprehensive Health Centre, Zamko, Langtang North Local Government Area of Plateau State.

The hospital's medical officer, Dr. Nyam Azi, said that as many as 280 victims were received in the hospital, 25 of them in the last three weeks, with one person dying because he arrived too late to be saved. He advised children to desist from hunting rodents in the bush as that puts them in danger of snake bites.

LEADERSHIP Friday reports that most victims of snake bite are youths, farmers, rat hunters and herdsmen

Dr Azi said: "For the adults, the situation is worse during the harvest season because people go to the farms without wearing boots and gloves.

"The hospital is struggling to cope though the federal government had provided 100 vials of anti-snake venom. We get lots of cases and the vials given by government are not sufficient. During the hot season, the 100 vials can be exhausted in five days.

"A vial of anti-snake venom costs N27, 000 and many victims, who could not afford that amount, usually seek alternative treatments: some go to native doctors leading to high mortality; many people just die at home. We have challenged them to do the economic arithmetic - a rat is not worth N27, 000; it costs just about N50 to N70.

"We have also advised them to stop moving around at night; where they must, they should use torchlights and try to avoid snakes' possible habitats."

He advised people in affected areas to rear pigs and ducks because they are sources of biological control of snakes.

"The two are natural predators that eat snakes and deplete their population," he noted.

However, a non-governmental organisation, Oracle Business Limited Foundation, said it had spent N150 million on the treatment of snake bites in Benue State from 2013 till date.

The founder of the Foundation, Dr Samuel Ortom, the governor of Benue State, disclosed that over 579 people from 14 local government areas in Benue State and one from Nasarawa State have benefitted from the initiative.

Coordinator of the snake bite treatment scheme of the Foundation, Evangelist Daniel Unongo, said there were beneficiaries from Guma, Makurdi, Gwer, Gwer West, Tarka, Buruku, Gboko, Konshisha, Ushongo, Oju, Logo, Ukum, Kwande and Apa in Benue, and Obi in Nasarawa State.

He stated that several students from the Benue State University whose local governments of origin could not be ascertained were also treated during the period under review.

He said the initiative was part of the services which the foundation rendered under its three-fold agenda of redemptive, restorative and reformative commission.

Terseer Mnega, a survivor from Tarka local government area, came to express his gratitude to the NGO for his successful treatment at the Bishop Murray Medical Centre in Makurdi.

Father of the survivor, Mr. Mnega Yenge, who accompanied his son, said that but for the NGO's help he could have lost Terseer because he could not have afforded the N228,000 spent on the boy's treatment in February this year.

Governor Ortom stated that the treatment was part of the services which the Foundation rendered under its three-fold agenda of redemptive, restorative and reformative commission.

He said God gave him the inspiration for the Foundation in 2004 as part of the Christian Help Ministry to cater for prison inmates, widows, orphans and the vulnerable as well as support the preaching of the gospel.

He disclosed that it became imperative for the Foundation to respond to the challenge of snake bites which persisted in rural communities where most victims were unable to pay the expensive bills for treatment.

He expressed gratitude to God that most of those who benefited from the treatment had survived, noting that due to rampant nature of the cases of snake bite; the Foundation retained the services of Bishop Murray Medical Centre and Rahama Hospital in Makurdi for the treatment of victims from various parts of the state.

Ortom revealed that the most spectacular case of survival was that of Mrs Ngufan Iorbee from Kaseyo in Guma local government area who, in the course of treatment, gave birth to a set of twins and survived along with the children.

Efforts to speak with the commissioner for Health and Human Services, Dr Cecilia Ojabo, to ascertain whether the state had been able to access the federal government's anti-snake venom and the level of awareness created among citizens failed as she neither picked her calls nor replied text messages sent to her phone.

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