Africa: Can Snake Farming Be the Answer to Anti-Venom Shortages?

24-year old migrant harvest worker Workey Mekonen, receives an infusion of antivenom in the MSF clinic in Abdurafi, Ethiopia. She was bitten on her forehead by a small snake, while sleeping on the ground in a shed in the farmlands.

Snakes! Eish! In Zimbabwe and elsewhere across the African continent, snakes inevitably evoke reactions of fear and helplessness. For most people, their stomachs flutter uncomfortably at the mere image of a slithering serpent. Its well known that the thought of snakes makes the majority of people anxious -- something experts call ophidiophobic -- deep fear of snakes.

The fear can be real or imaginary. Many know that a snake bite can cause swelling, burning sensation, the loss of control of the tongue and jaw and slurred speech, tunnel and blurred vision, drowsiness, paralysis and mental confusion.

Simply put, the bite is life-threatening and hence whenever a snake is seen, many people say it must be stoned to death.

Such fear has deep biblical roots as well as myths around witchcraft in African cultural settings.

It's the risk of dying that causes innate fear of snakes among people in Africa.

Whether people all really share an innate terror of snakes or not, some are moving on to moot a regular daredevil display of snake farming.

Yes snake farming! University of Zimbabwe pharmacist - toxicologist Prof Dexter Tagwireyi is one of a few Zimbabweans who believe rearing snakes on a larger scale could help open more opportunities for the country and save the lives of many people who are attacked by snakes.

"South Africans have managed to get it up and running. They have two major snake farms that supply snake venom to laboratories for the development of anti-venom which is exported to the entire SADC region and across the continent," he says.

"As a country, we need to take practical efforts to promote the establishment of a snake farm and research centre and the development of micro-niche in the snake and anti-venom industry to save the lives of our people, widen export revenue options and tap into a niche that can create opportunities for academics and researchers.

"All the venom produced currently in South Africa has a ready market locally and abroad. Zimbabwe needs to start thinking about developing a micro-anti-venom production unit to take advantage of the growing local and international demand."

The area of snake handling and anti-venom development fills him with both excitement and anxiety.

"We can sell the venom on its own and this is in demand in local research and academic institutions. A well-developed anti-venom sector has the potential to spur research into development of potential pharmacological therapies and other medical treatments for cancer and hypertension," he says.

"Zimbabwe must explore venom distribution and marketing chains on the world market. We can start on a small scale with the extraction of venom before we expand to anti-venom production."

At present, Zimbabwe spends a sizeable amount foreign currency importing anti-venom from India, which some highly placed hospital sources say it's not effective in the treatment of snake bites and has caused complications in a number local patients.

One vial or dose costs between US$80 and US$150 or more depending on the quality and manufacturer.

"Cheaper and fake snake anti-venom has found way into the Zimbabwean market. Many of the ones we import from India are not effective because they are made with anti-venom taken from snakes from a different ecological zone. The new World Health Organisation guidelines now recommend use of anti-venom from the same ecological zone -- for our case -- southern Africa for effective treatment of snake bites.

"The WHO has put snake bites back on the list of neglected tropical diseases.

"Snakebites are expensive to treat and easily cost in excess of US$1 000 and this is why most hospitals in the country end up cutting limbs to save lives rather treat using anti-venom.

"Many people are dying from complications related to ineffective anti-venoms and the Government needs to work closely with local research institutions to promote the development of a vibrant anti-venom micro sector."

A survey by The Herald indicates that the snake farming sector in Zimbabwe is largely uncoordinated and dominated by a few whites who have strong connections with the South African market and a few others in the US and Britain.

A few of the whites that do snake farming, do it inside plots and residential settings, away from the prying eye of the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authority and people who may raise alarm.

The sector is largely opaque and highly secretive.

"I'm only trained to handle the snakes and feed them," says a black snake handler who works for a white man in Harare's Chisipite suburb. I only assist my boss when he is collecting the venom. When he collects it, I don't know where he goes with it. He makes a lot of money, but he doesn't want people to know about the business."

Other people say the venom collected by a few and secretive snake farmers in the country is smuggled into South Africa, which is the only country in southern Africa which produces anti-venom.

Zimbabwe imports part of the anti-venom from South Africa.

"South Africans won't tell you how to harvest and process venom. It's a white -dominated industry, elitist and secretive. Its not easy for blacks to penetrate this industry," says a Harare-based snake handler and catcher.

"The best they can do is to invite a few blacks just to train as snake handlers. That's all. We need to get our act together as blacks to produce venom and anti-venom to save the lives of our people. Snake bites are a big killer and we have to unite and take serious action."

Not all hope is lost.

Prof Tagwireyi and his friend Chawatama Marimo, a popular Harare snake charmer who has handled some of Zimbabwe's most dangerous snakes, are now planning to start a snake farm.

They are working together closely to start a snake farm with the hope of producing venom and conducting research to produce anti-venom.

"Snake farming is not capital intensive. We only need land, a structure or containers and skilled snake handlers," says Prof Tagwireyi without hiding his fear of snakes.

"You need to have passion for snakes. Without passion, the snake farming venture can collapse. Apart from this, we need to scout for good markets and connect with people who have built strong distribution and marketing lines in this sector."

He says all this also requires the understanding of parks and wildlife management laws and regulations for the keeping of dangerous snakes and animals.

Zimbabwe has an abundance of snake species writhing their way in and around the diverse habitats of the country.

From the rock python to the aggressive black mamba and the large, heavy bodied puff adder, the snakes all play an important part of the ecosystem in Zimbabwe.

They are natural pest controllers and feed off rodents, insects, amphibians and small mammals. Without snakes, the natural environment could become overpopulated, snake lovers say. With a well-managed snake farming sector, Prof Tagwireyi says the country could easily produce anti-venom in much the same way the South African Vaccine Producers are doing to manufacture a monovalent anti-venom that is effective against the venom of the Boomslang and a polyvalent anti-venom that provides protection against the venom of the puff adder, Gaboon adder, black and green mambas including the dangerous cobras in Zimbabwe.

"With proper funding and support, we can do it," he says.

"We need a clear plan of action that is sustainable. The Government is very keen to support such ventures and what is needed is commitment and funding.

"We have the skills, we need land, start -up capital and support for regulatory approvals."

The risky business of snake farming, he further says, is the way to go.

"If we could milk our own snakes, we could in essence be able to produce our own anti-venom or perhaps export to SA to get our own supplies developed from our own venom and thus theoretically be able to significantly reduce the cost of purchasing the anti-venom which are very pricey," Prof Tagwireyi says.

"Many research groups are doing studies on the potential of venoms in coming up with medications for cancer, etc. We could milk the venom and sell it to these groups which are largely in regions where the venomous snakes we have in Zimbabwe do not exist."

Zimbabwe, just like many other developing countries is grappling with the snake bites menace and an acute shortages of anti-venoms. Official figures show that by March 25, 2018, there were 114 cases of snake bites and one death. The cumulative figure for snake bites were 1 937 and 13 deaths by this period.

In the first quarter of 2017, snake bites claimed 38 lives, while the total number of those bitten were 5 605. There is a paucity of information on snake bites as many go unreported in most parts of the country. Figures are only based on estimates.

According to the African Snakebite Institute, Zimbabwe has 81 snake species, 48 of which are highly poisonous.

Researchers say the biggest killer are puff adders which are responsible for up to 90 percent of cases of deaths.

Snake bites kill approximately 32 000 people in sub-Saharan Africa and leave 100 000 survivors nursing injuries, many of whom suffer permanent physical disabilities, according to a WHO study.

Globally, poisonous snake bites kill about 90 000 people a year and leave a further 400 000 with lost limbs, blindness and trauma.

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