Source: News24 (Extract)
Posted: April 6, 2023

Snake catchers have raised the alarm at the increased risk they face while attempting to safely remove venomous snakes from residential areas, as South Africa faces a severe antivenom shortage.

Low stocks showed little sign of increasing, said African Snakebite Institute CEO Johan Marais.

He added that at the moment, a few hundred antivenom vials were being released into circulation each month, but these did not go far in the face of the demand.

South Africa’s antivenom is produced by SA Vaccine Producers, which is part of the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS).

The NHLS maintained that there were doses available and more being manufactured.

Marais said not only was there a severe backlog of orders placed by hospitals and veterinary clinics, but several vials of antivenom were needed to treat just one snake bite.

He added a dog might need between two and four vials of antivenom, but depending on the snake bite, a human could need as many as 12 doses to neutralise the venom.

He said: “The sooner the patient receives the antivenom, the better. If they don’t receive treatment, or it is administered too late, there is a risk of tissue damage or people dying.”

Marais said antivenom could only be administered to humans in a hospital setting, as some patients experienced anaphylactic shock.

Patients will also most likely need to spend time in intensive care or a high-care unit following the bite.

He said rural communities, especially in the Lowveld areas of KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, were most at risk for snake bites, adding that farmers and farm workers were also at risk.

The NHLS said it distributed 1,422 antivenom doses throughout the country between 1 December 2022 and 31 March 2023.

“We have been distributing a batch of 1,077 snakebite antivenom doses as from Monday and continue to maintain a limited number of doses for emergencies,” it said.

“It is worth noting that to produce snakebite antivenom, the NHLS requires a consistent and dependable power supply. The continuous switch over to generators during power outages interrupts production, which impacts on productivity and maintaining a stockpile. Within a month, we would have significantly reduced the backlog, and after two months, we would be back to normal production rates.”

Snake catcher Nick Evans said the shortage of antivenom was a “big concern”.

He said: “It’s very frustrating. South Africa is a ‘snakey’ place. You’d think that the supply of antivenom is a high priority.”

Evans added most snake bite cases he saw were in dogs, and there had been cases where dogs died due to a lack of antivenom.

But a snake biting a human, especially a snake catcher, is an ever-present threat.

“I try not to think about it too much, but it is always at the back of my mind. It’s an unnecessary worry.

“I try to keep tabs on which hospital has antivenom, but a patient could come in, and then they’ll be out of stock. The situation is a mess, and it shouldn’t be an issue.”

Fellow snake catcher Leo du Toit said the shortage of antivenom made his job more dangerous, saying: “I have to be absolutely sure that I don’t get bitten.”

Snake catcher Dale Snyders said aside from the risk he and his fellow professionals faced, there was also an increased risk for the public.

He added that some snake catchers in his network had expressed a reluctance to respond to calls because there might not be antivenom should they be bitten.

This means homeowners may attempt to remove or kill the snakes instead.

“These are the repercussions. You have a snake in your home, your kids are at risk, and no one responds to what you view as an emergency, so you go in to handle it yourself.

“Most people get bitten trying to kill snakes. They don’t understand snake behaviour and their defence mechanisms.”

Snyders said snake catchers had been left feeling frustrated by the lack of action around the shortage.

“It feels like a complete disregard for human life.”

Marais said the only glimmer of hope for the industry was that snakes would become less active in the colder months, in turn reducing the risk of conflict with humans and pets.

The NHLS said its investments in backup power systems and renewable energy sources would allow it to meet the energy demands of its manufacturing process, while also ensuring an uninterrupted supply of snakebite antivenom to those in need.

“The NHLS management is closely monitoring and actively working on emergency measures, as well as developing solutions to overcome current bottlenecks caused by energy disruptions,” it said.

“Despite some successes, ongoing power outages continue to have a significant impact on our production. We recognise and appreciate the public’s concern about the current snakebite antivenom shortage, but we urge South Africans not to panic.

“We are working hard to make this life-saving treatment for snake bites available to everyone, including animals, regardless of location. The NHLS management is taking this matter very seriously and is working hard to resolve it.”