At the mercy of venom

Deadly pose: Snakes are among venomous creatures stalking Mochudi villagers
Deadly pose: Snakes are among venomous creatures stalking Mochudi villagers

Residents of Mochudi are living in fear of slithering and creeping creatures, following a spate of deaths linked to snakes and scorpions. As the summer heats up, the lack of anti-venom, coupled with health-care shortcomings in the area, have left Bakgatla exposed, writes Mmegi Correspondent, LERATO MALEKE

Villagers here have experienced a tragically frenetic few weeks. Two women have died in separate incidents, one bitten by a snake and the other by a scorpion. Bakgatla are finding it difficult to trust their health care providers.

A final year university student was recently buried after dying from a snakebite, which many believe should have been treatable. Her death could have been avoided, relatives say, had the health care system not let her down.

It is understood the student had gone out just before 8pm last Sunday to fetch her laundry from the line.  She cried out that she had been bitten by something and her parents rushed her to Deborah Retief Memorial Hospital, an 83-year-old institution in the district.

Built courtesy of the Dutch Reformed Church, the hospital is amongst the country’s oldest and still features old buildings around its sprawling complex.

Mosanta ward councillor, Tona Mooketsi, takes up the tale.

“We could not tell what bit her because it disappeared into the dark and no one saw it,” he says.

“We all suspected a snake because Mosanta is full of trees and also surrounded by hills.”

According to the councillor, who was among the first responders, a tourniquet was tied around the young woman’s bite and she was rushed to the hospital.

“We were informed that the doctor was not available and the young woman was only given a pill and asked to rest for observation.

“She spent 24 hours without being consulted by a doctor, as none was available,” Mooketsi says, his voice rising in anger.

He continues: “What hurts me the most is that the nurses asked the young woman to remove the tourniquet applied by her parents and this is when the venom spread to other parts of the body.

“Why did they remove the cloth knowing very well that they were not going to do anything?”

According to the councillor, a doctor arrived in the morning, found the student’s condition had worsened and referred her to Princess Marina Hospital in Gaborone.

“There her parents were told that nothing could be done as the poison had spread to other parts of the body. She was in a weak condition by then.”

The councillor believes traditional first aid methods, such as sucking out venom, burning the bitten area and using tourniquets are effective in sustaining bite victims while professional help is sought.

“We have done these at the cattle post when herdboys were bitten by snakes or scorpions and these work. Even our grandfathers practiced these and so many lives were saved,” he argues.

Prior to the student’s death, a middle-aged woman was bitten by a scorpion and died after three days.

A close family member says the woman was rushed to Boseja clinic and given an injection before being taken to the hospital.

“She was admitted at the hospital, but could not improve,” says the relative.

“She was then referred to Marina where her condition worsened and she died after three days.”

The recent incidents, coupled with the proliferation of venomous creatures due to the prevailing heat, have amped up community misgivings about the state of the district health care system.

Although Deborah Retief officials were unavailable for comment, a pharmacist at the hospital says while different medications are stored at Morwa Clinic, there are difficulties transporting these around the district due to transport shortages.

“Sometimes there are no labourers to upload the medicines at the hospital.  Imagine as a pharmacist I have to do it and I am not a labourer,” he says. The pharmacist adds that the hospital does not have call rooms where doctors, lab assistants or technicians can wait for emergency cases.

“As a result, when there is an emergency, a vehicle has to leave the hospital to fetch the doctor and this takes time.

“Think about the patient and the poison.  This is the time when the poison is spreading.” Snake handlers say anti-venom should be provided to victims within two hours of a venomous bite, in order to increase the chances of survival.

Ordinarily, they say, victims are not expected to die from most snake or scorpion bites.

“However, the more remotely located you are, the greater danger you are in as anti-venom may not arrive to you on time. When attacked by very venomous creatures, the danger is worse.

“Remember the Letlhakeng incident in Kgalagadi where five family members perished after being bitten by a black mamba,” says a Botswana Defence Force snake handler, speaking on condition of anonymity.

As temperatures soar in the district, the bushveldt watered by the early season rains stands tall, providing warmth and coverage for all manner of creatures that lie ready to strike. Villagers venturing out at twilight, even for the most mundane of tasks, do not have the comfort of knowing that the health care system in the district will nurse them back to health.

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