Understanding snakes and snakebites

The presence of a snake always arouses both fear and curiosity among people. This uneasy relationship between human beings and snakes is reflected in the many superstitions and myths that sadly perpetuate the already existing and equally negativity about the reptiles.

For many people any snake seen is an enemy and every year thousands of snakes are killed, in the home, fields, on the road and even in the bush. So goes the saying, 'a good snake is a dead one'. So universally entrenched is the belief that snakes are bad that a dream that involves snakes will always be seen as a bad omen.  According to Wikipedia, historically, snakebites were seen as a means of execution, a form of punishment in some cultures. In medieval Europe, a form of capital punishment was to throw people into snake pits, leaving victims to die from multiple venomous bites. In the Judeo-Christian scriptures, more than once the devil or evil one is portrayed as a snake or a serpent. Sadly some have interpreted the scripture literally and believe that every snake is the devil and deserves to die. The same fear is reflected in most societies where any snake species is feared. This has led to the death of many harmless and very useful snake species.

Interestingly, according to Johan Marais in his book, Snakes and Snakebites in Southern Africa snakes do not always release venom when they bite someone and this is called 'dry bite' or "Venomous snake bite without envenoming". Snakebite victims often report having seen a snake yet not knowing whether they have been bitten says the author in the book. They may have fang marks but no venom.

Snakes, experts say, are generally secretive and they tend to avoid human beings at all cost. However, there are situations where people get bitten by snakes.

According to Wikipedia, the number of fatalities attributed to snakes varies greatly by geographical area. The encyclopedia continues to explain that the morbidity and mortality associated with snakebites is a public health problem in many regions of the world, particularly in rural areas lacking medical facilities.

This has been cruelly true in a recent case. Recently three women belonging to one family died after being bitten by a snake or snakes in Mokoboxane.

While two of the women were found already dead, a third could not be treated in the village or the neighboring villages because there was no anti-venom available in the three clinics that they went to for help. It has since emerged that many believe that one of the contributing factors in the unfortunate deaths of the women was the fact that they were not able to get medical help quickly.

It has also been revealed that in this particular case nobody (including the victims) knew what course of action to take after the women were bitten, exhibiting a pretty much universal ignorance about snakebites. Because people do not know what to do when somebody has been bitten by a snake, precious, critical time that they could have been used to save the victim is wasted.

According to Marais, a snakebite can be serious and life threatening, and so requires swift and appropriate treatment of the victim. In a situation where somebody has been bitten by a snake, first aid needs to be administered. Because snake species vary from country to country, first aid methods also vary. However according to Wikipedia, most first aid guidelines agree on the following:

* Protect the patient (and others, including yourself) from further bites. While identifying the species is desirable in certain regions, do not risk further bites or delay proper medical treatment by attempting to capture or kill the snake. If the snake has not already fled, carefully remove the victim from the immediate area.

* Keep the victim calm. Acute stress reaction increases blood flow and endangers the patient. Keep the people near the patient calm. Panic is infectious and compromises judgment.

*Call for help to arrange transport to the nearest hospital emergency room, where anti-venom for snakes common to the area will always be available.

*Make sure to keep the bitten limb in a functional position and below the victims heart level so as to minimize blood returning to the heart and other organs of the body.

* Do not give the patient anything to eat or drink. This is especially important with consumable alcohol, a known vasodilator which will speed up the absorption of venom. Do not administer stimulants or pain medications to the victim, unless specifically directed to do so by a physician.

* Remove any items or clothing which may constrict the bitten limb if it swells (rings, bracelets, watches, footwear, etc)

* Keep the victim as still as possible.

* Do not incise the bitten site.

However, in his book Marais highlights that 'prevention is better than cure' and suggests the following:

* Leave snakes alone and treat all snakes with respect at all times.

* Never handle small 'harmless-looking' snakes especially those carried into your house by cats.

* Never tamper with seemingly dead snakes as many species have the nasty habit of playing dead when scared or threatened, only to strike out the moment an opportunity arises.

* Wear denim trousers and boots that cover your ankles if you spend a great deal of time outdoors. This applies to hikers, birders, fishermen and hunters. Very few snakes will successfully strike through loose-fitting denim trousers.

*Step onto logs and rocks, never over them. Snakes often sun themselves on the sides of rocks or logs.

* Never put your hand in out of reach places, especially when mountain-climbing. Berg Adders often bask on small ledges and will certainly bite if a hand suddenly appears from nowhere. 

* Never walk with bare feet or without a torch at night when camping or visiting a game lodge. Many snakes are active after sunset, and slow-moving species like the Puff Adder are easily trodden on.

*Do not try to kill a snake if you come across one in the wild. Throwing rocks at snakes or shooting them is looking for trouble. Snakes have an important ecological role which includes eating the rodents that destroy your crop. It is thus necessary to know about snakes in Botswana and other southern African countries. Johan Marais' book, Snakes and Snakebites in Southern Africa is a very helpful resource. Among other things, the book profiles snake species found in the region including, the puff adder, the gaboon adder, the berg adder, the horned adder, the many-horned adder, the common night adder, the black mamba, the green mamba, the Cape cobra, the snouted cobra, the forest cobra, the Mozambique spitting cobra, the black spitting cobra, the western barred spitting cobra, the rinkhals, the coral snake, the shield-nose snake, the boomslang, the twig snake, the stiletto snake, the Natal black snake, the rufous snake, the olive grass snake, the short-snouted grass snake, the stripe-bellied sand snake, spotted skaapsteker, tiger snake, herald snake, the cape centipede-eater, the southern African python, the brown house snake and so on.

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