Snakebites don’t make headlines, Survivors recount experience in Nigeria's 'snake communities'

Travelling from Kaltugo Hospital to the city for anti-venom alone usually takes a 70km journey. Some victims die while relations were still on the quest of raising money for treatment
Snakebites don’t make headlines, Survivors recount experience in Nigeria's 'snake communities'

A snakebite patient being treated by a caregiver

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Joida Wakili, a snakebite victim, was ferried to Kaltungo General Hospital in Gombe in a tricycle popularly called ‘Keke NAPEP’ by concerned relatives whose face could not mask their fear and anxiety that the victim may not survive.

The hospital did not also give them hope that Wakili would survive the deadly bite from carpet viper – a venomous snake responsible for the death of several people.

They were asked to go into the city and procure three vials of Anti-Snake Venom (ASV) for his treatment.

The relatives exchanged glances when they got wind of the cost of a single vial.

While efforts were on to liquidate some livestock to raise the money, the patient did not wait to see out his treatment.

“Wakili died before the anti-venom arrived. My people were left with no option but to take his body back home for burial,” his brother, Musa, narrated the ordeal to PUNCHHealthWise.

Musa lamented that losing his sibling to the complication of snakebite brought untold hardship on the family he left behind, a development that subsequently made his widow abandon the deceased’s children a year after his burial.

“Now, I am solely responsible for the upkeep and schooling of his two children,” he bemoaned.

15-year-old Gombe pupil died treating wounds

The death of Raila Ezra, described as a brilliant student and future star shook Shongo community in Gombe to its root. The 15-year-old pupil of Lasassap Primary School was bitten on her way from school, her ear-splitting shriek alerted passers-by and sympathisers. Rather than rush her to a nearby health facility, poor Raila was brought home where she was subjected to local treatment for one week.

Her guardian, Ezekiel Ezra, who spoke with our correspondent through the aid of an interpreter, disclosed that the death of Raila, one of five children, was felt by all.

“She was a brilliant girl. We tried our best though. It was unfortunate she has to go the way she did. Some people blamed us for not taking her to the hospital. But where is the money?” he fumed.

As grim and pathetic as the case of Raila, Wakili and other casualties of snakebites might sound, there are however a considerable number of survivors who live to tell their stories.

Three-time snakebites survivor tells his story

One of such is Abubakar Umar, a 46-year-old farmer whose encounter with the crawling creature on three separate occasions was corroborated by physicians at the Kaltungo treatment centre. Umar got bitten while having a nap in his apartment on a hot, scorching day.

“The snake slipped in through a crack in the door and bit me. I woke up in shock to see it retreating. I was immediately driven to the hospital.

“It was my first time walking into the Kaltungo snake bites hospital. I must have been 30 years old or so when it happened,” he said.

Umar disclosed that it is not an unusual occurrence to see snakes crawling about in regions like Bauchi, Taraba, Plateau and Gombe, especially Kaltungo, which have communities with a high incidence of snakebites.

“It happens every time. In fact, there was a time the Emir of Kaltungo, Dr. Saleh Muhammad made a pronouncement that he would pay N1,000 for every snake caught and brought to his palace. The quest was unprecedented. People went as far as going into thick bushes and forests in search of serpents. Thank God that the danger has abated.

“The last time I got bitten was almost 10 years ago. I was walking down the road and mistakenly stepped on it. Of course, it retaliated.

“I guess I was just fortunate to have a father who quite understood the danger of delay when it comes to snake bites. Travelling from Kaltugo Hospital to the city for drugs alone usually takes a 70km journey. Many are not that fortunate.

I have seen victims die while relations were still on the quest of raising money for treatment,” he stated.

The World Health Organisation classified snakebite envenoming (poisoning from snake bites) as a high-priority neglected tropical disease.

The agency says about 5.4 million bites occur globally each year, resulting in 1.8 to 2.7million cases of envenoming and 1,37,880 death.

In Nigeria, the incidence of snake bites and fatalities is seemingly on the rise.

That perhaps explains why the Minister of State for Health, Dr. Olorunnimbe Mamora raised the alarm at the 2021 International Snakebite Awareness Day that Nigeria records 20,000 cases annually.

Mamora added that the number of deaths from snakebite complications has also risen to 2,000 deaths every year, statistics that some medical experts contested.

Another survivor of snakebite who is still reeling from the shock is Shem Tadayo, a resident of Shongo in Gombe.

As witnessed in the case of Umar, Tadayo was also a three-time survivor following his experience in 1988, 1989, and 1991.

“I was then as a student because I remember getting admission into secondary school in 1984. I also recalled sleeping at the hospital till daybreak before they brought the medicine for my treatment.

“The two bottles of drug cost us N72,000 because of scarcity. My people went out of Kaltungo to buy it. It pained me when I heard how much was spent on my treatment.

“Since it was a loan, I had to bear the consequence by paying back small small. You know I am a poor farmer. It took me up to six months or thereabout. It was a painful experience. I was paying N10,000 each month,” he bemoaned.

As of the time of filing this report, the 48-year-old farmer also works in Federal Polytechnic, Kaltungo, as a security guard.

The harrowing experiences of snakebite victims seem to draw sympathy from even some physicians in various treatment centres.

A consultant and infectious diseases expert in Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Dr. Adefolarin Opawoye argued that in a country of over 204 million population with the minimum wage for workers pegged at N30,000 ($73), it is unlikely health facility will be the first port of call for most victims in rural communities.

“Sometimes, these patients journeyed for more than a day before they get to the treatment centres. And when the ASV is unavailable in centres like Kaltungo, they are forced to travel again to faraway towns to procure it. This is why some patients are kept waiting for four or five days before they receive treatment. Some even die in the process of waiting for ASV.

“Again, whatever anti-venom is being bought has to be specific to the snake that bit the patient.

Snakebites victims given cold ‘pure water’ to sustain anti-venom temperature

Opawoye stated that for an ASV to be considered effective for use, it has to maintain what he called a ‘cold chain.’

What this means is that the drug has to be maintained at a certain temperature.

However, he noted that some locals in affected areas such as Plateau and Gombe have found a way around it.

“Whenever the ASV is procured in Gombe city, it is usually accompanied with cold ‘pure’ water to sustain the temperature.

“But by the time, they make it to the hospital, the cold sachet water would have become hot, which in turn could affect the temperature of anti-venom.

These are some of the issues these victims contend with on daily basis.

“Unfortunately, snake bites don’t get attention or make it to the front page of any newspaper in this country because it is regarded as a disease of the ‘poor people,” he said.

Opawoye equally believed that the number of people affected is ‘probably more’ than what the minister projected.

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