The menace of snakebite in a country such as Nigeria and its myriad effects on the health and productivity of its citizens, particularly those in the rural areas, should never be underestimated, health analysts say.
By nature, the rustic setting provides the most suitable habitat for snakes and the fact that a larger segment of the society lives in rural areas, the damaging effects of snakebite on the people, particularly those living in the snake-belt region, are numerous and grave.
This is because farmers and pastoralists, who form the backbone of the agriculture sector, are prone to snakebites since they spend a larger part of their time in the bush.
The seriousness of the situation once provoked the National Assembly to mull over declaring snakebite as “a national health emergency”.
Dr Folake Ademola-Majekodunmi, Director of Special Projects, Federal Ministry of Health, reeled out a frightening statistics on the snakebite situation at the recent inauguration of the Echitab Snakebite and Treatment Centre in Kaltungo, Gombe State.
She disclosed that an estimated five million people worldwide got bitten by snakes every year, with up to 2.5 people suffering from snakebite envenoming.
Ademola-Majekodunmi added that of this figure, at least 100,000 people died annually, while over 300,000 amputations and other permanent disabilities occurred from snakebite complications each year.
“In Africa, an estimated one million snakebites occur, with Nigeria having an estimated incidence of snakebites to the ratio of 174 per 100,000 persons,” she said.
The Minister of State for Health, Alhaji Suleiman Bello, said that the states that were mostly affected by the menace of snakebite were Taraba, Gombe, Plateau, Enugu, Kogi, Oyo, Borno, Adamawa, Jigawa and Niger.
He noted that in the period between 2005 and 2010, a total of 12,398 snakebite cases were recorded at the Snakebite Treatment Centre in Kaltungo, Gombe State, out of which 155 people died.
Bello stressed that most of the deaths were due to the late report of the snakebite cases to the Centre and the people’s initial resolve to use of traditional therapeutic methods.
Dr Paul Orhii, the Director-General of NAFDAC, explained that the “Carpet Viper’’ specie of snakes accounted for 90 per cent of snakebites in the country, while its envenoming was the major cause of death.
He added that the “Puff Adder’’ and “Spitting Cobra’’ snake species accounted for the remaining 10 per cent of snakebites.
Irked by the alarming statistics on snakebites in the country, the Federal Government decided to tackle the problem headlong by ensuring the availability and affordability of efficacious Anti Snakebite Venoms (ASV), while laying considerable emphasis on “preventive” strategies.
Part of the efforts led to the constitution of the Nigeria/UK Echitab Study Group, charged with the task of conducting research and developing ASV, while looking into ways of providing free treatment for snakebite victims.
After series of research activities over several years, the Echitab Group, which is based in UK, developed three different brands of ASV, using venom extracted from local snakes purposely to address the Nigerian situation.
The inauguration of the structure that houses the Echitab Snakebite Control and Research Centre in Kaltungo was part of the collaborative efforts aimed at finding lasting solutions to the menace of snakebite in the country.
At the building’s inauguration, the health minister of state, pledged the commitment of the current federal administration toward ensuring that citizens no longer died from snakebite.
“With this centre, research activities will receive a boost, while technology transfer will be made possible to enable the local production of ASV,’’ he said.
Bello, however, reiterated that the “preventive” approach was more desirable and effective in efforts to control the incidence of snakebite.
“We should all be part of the public awareness creation, prevention, the treatment and control of snakebites,’’ he said.
“Those at the risk of snakebites include farmers, fishermen, herdsmen, hunters and those living in houses with cracks, piled woods, debris and rodents that snakes prey on.
“These high-risk groups and the general population should be very vigilant and they should wear shoes and boots, especially at night, after rains and during floods.
“The people should also use torchlight when walking at night and avoid handling water snakes caught in fishing nets. They should strive to keep their environment clean and mend cracks in their homes,’’ he counselled.
Some observers are, nonetheless, quick to point out that for the preventive approach to succeed, items required for self-protection against snakebite should be available and affordable, particularly to people in the rural areas.
Malam Isa Abdumalik, a farmer, noted that in Kaltungo, one of the country’s snake havens, not even a single shop sold hand-gloves and rain boots, the two kits strongly recommended for use by farmers and pastoralists in the area.
He said that even in Gombe, very few shops stocked such items, adding that in such exceptional cases where the items were found in shops, their costs were often beyond the reach of the average rural dweller.
Many observers share Abdumalik’s viewpoint, saying that the situation is similar across all the areas battling with the menace of snakebite.
The scenario compels the observers to call for more purposeful strategies to combat the snakebite menace with a particular emphasis on the precautionary approach.
The Emir of Kaltungo, Alhaji Sale Mohammad, belongs to this school of thought. He estimates that an average of eight persons in his domain gets bitten by snakes each day.
The traditional ruler underscores the need for the people to take precautionary measures with utmost seriousness.
Malam Ali Babaji , a peasant farmer, and Malam Jauro Mohammad, a pastoralist, believe that the money, spent by politicians in purchasing motorcycles for people during election campaigns, could be used more judiciously to buy hand gloves and boots for the people.
Dr Habu Ballah, Medical Officer in charge of the Kaltungo Snakebite Centre, says that the need to ensure the availability of genuine ASV cannot be over-emphasised.
He cites instances when some states purchased ineffective ASV and administered the drugs on snakebite victims, stressing that the administration of the sub-standard medicine led to some serious complications.
The NAFDAC Director-General also stressed the need to ensure the availability of the ASV, while taking steps to commence local production of the drugs.
“I wish to use this opportunity to appeal that in the short term, government imports massive quantities of the Echitab ASV, while in the long term, we should think of putting up a befitting manufacturing facility to produce the products in Nigeria.
“This, we believe, will address the problem of scarcity and prevent unnecessary loss of lives due to snakebite,” Orhii recommended in his address at the inauguration of the Echitab Snakebite and Treatment Centre in Kaltungo, Gombe State.
Some health experts and concerned citizens could not but agree with the recommendation of the NAFDAC boss.
“We gathered that the production of the ASV under the Echitab collaboration is being done in Britain with the involvement of some Nigerian experts,’’ says Dr Zainab Hassan, a consultant epidemiologist.
“Now that there is a structure on ground in Gombe, all we need to do is to transfer the facilities home and produce the drugs en masse at affordable costs.
“Unless that is done, the purpose of establishing the Centre will be defeated and it will be another case of taxpayers’ funds going down the drain,’’ Hassan says.
Salihu, is of News Agency of Nigeria.