The shortage of polyvalent snake antivenom produced in South Africa is mainly caused by load shedding.
According to snake experts, urgent intervention is needed to tackle the power problem and prevent the problem regarding the shortage of antidote from heading towards disaster. That is why 27 experts in the field of snakebite treatment have now written an open letter to Dr. Joe Phaahla, the Minister of Health, directed to plead for intervention.
The crisis is already looming for almost a yearwith veterinarians warning that pets in particular are dying due to a lack of antidote.
According to Chris Hobkirk of Lowveld Venom Suppliers (LVS) from Mbombela, Mpumalanga, the South African Vaccine Producers (SAVP) in Johannesburg’s manufacturing process is being hampered by load shedding. The SAVP produces antidote for the entire country.
“The process is interrupted due to load shedding and machines break in between which further slows down the process. The cooling of the antidote is also affected because a continuous power supply is required in this process,” says Hobkirk.
“We must intervene to prevent loss of life, not only of animals but also of people,” Hobkirk told Rhewal.
“There is also the danger that people can lose limbs and this must be prevented at all times.”
In the experts’ letter to the minister, Phaahla is asked for the provision of the necessary money and resources to the laboratory to improve the overall operation so that the manufacturing process is no longer affected by load shedding.
“Appropriate equipment, power generators and other essential production items will significantly improve production which will ensure a sufficient amount of antidote.”
Other problems that also contribute to the deficit are management problems and staffing restrictions, says Prof. Timothy Hardcastle, a trauma surgeon and member of the national snake bite advisory group and the Trauma Society of South Africa.
Polyvalent antivenom is used in the treatment of snake bites from, among others, the black mamba, green mamba, Jameson’s mamba, yellow snake, Mozambican spitting cobra, rinkhals, puff adder and gabo viper. Tree snake bites are treated with a separate (specific) antidote.
The antivenom is considered the best antidote for poisonous snakebites and according to Hardcastle and Hobkirk there is no suitable alternative product for snakebite treatment.
“In the case of cytotoxic poisoning (where the poison affects the tissue) there are devastating consequences if one does not get antidote in time. With neurotoxic poisoning (snake venom that affects the nervous system) it can even cause someone’s death if antivenom is not administered,” says Hobkirk.
According to Hardcastle, antidote is being produced, but it is being used to fill the large backlog of orders before new orders can be taken.
“Certain public and private hospitals – many of which are located in high-risk snakebite areas – are already out of stock while others have very little anti-venom on hand. Some vets are currently unable to obtain antidote at all,” says Hardcastle. “There is also no sign that the stock will be replenished soon.”
According to Hardcastle, children run a particularly high risk of becoming seriously ill when they are bitten by a snake and antivenom is not administered in time.
Most snake bites occur in the subtropical warm parts of the country (the eastern parts, including the Lowveld, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal). Snakes are most active between November and April, when temperatures are warmer.
Hobkirk advises anyone who encounters a snake to keep his or her distance and make no sudden movements, “because then the snake will not see you as a threat and attack”.
When someone does get stung or bitten by a snake, it is important to stay calm and get help as soon as possible.
“Call a snake handler or go to your nearest hospital as quickly as possible.”
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