When a snake bites you

Saul Gwakuba Ndlovu
AN accidental fire that did much damage to a Ruwa farmstead owned by Vice-President Joice Mujuru raised quite a few eyebrows all over Zimbabwe in view of the fact that her husband, the late Retired General Solomon Mujuru died in a huge fire at their Beatrice farm not very long ago.
It was, however, reassuring that the Mujuru family quickly told the nation that the Ruwa farm fire was started by a family member who was killing a snake but that it got out of control and set ablaze houses with thatched roofs, destroying a number of them.

From about the month of May to October or November, fires are a well-known hazard to rural areas of the southern hemisphere.
Various types of snakes are quite common in those areas. Among those reptiles we come across the Egyptian cobra, the night-adder and, of course, the highly venomous and most dangerous black and green mambas.

The mambas are most dangerous because they can bite their foe or disturber from any direction: sideways, frontally or by somersaulting to strike an attacker or victim in their rear. Unlike the majority of snakes, mambas are very agile and extremely aggressive as well as very fast, having known to attain 45 kilometres per hour on a rough, stoney ground.

When dealing with a snake in an environment where houses are a feature, long poles are, of course, the usual weapons. But should the snake hide under an asbestos or zinc sheet, or coil itself in a corner or wherever, hot water is the most effective weapon to use. Pour buckets after buckets of scalding hot water on the beast, and you make it utterly powerless.

All that would be required after that is a strong pole with which to crush the reptile’s head. If the snake is either in a hedge or on a tree, a strong current of water from a hose pipe directed at its head for 15 to 20 minutes renders it powerless and unable to move swiftly away for long enough for it to be dragged to where it is accessible for killing.

The night-adder (iphimpi, mbhehalugo) is also aggressive although not to the same ferocious extent as the mamba. Unlike its name sake, the puff adder (ibululu, mbvumbi), it will squirt a great deal of poison towards its attacker from a coiled position.

The Egyptian cobra is rather lethargic, unlike its most energetic cousin, the hooded, spitting cobra which, when cornered, will spring a good two or three metres to attack.

Farmers should as a necessity keep a well-stocked up first aid kit one whose contents is some snakebite kit. In case somebody had been bitten by a snake, he or she should be rushed to the nearest hospital, to be there in not less than four or (at the latest) five hours.

If the person has been bitten by a mamba, (mhungu, hilobahwiho), there will be little or no swelling or pain in and around the wound. But a few minutes after being bitten, the victim becomes confused, drowsy and disturbance in muscular co-ordination occurs, excessive salivating (dribbling) is experienced by the victim, and so do muscular pains and profuse sweating.

Should there be no medical treatment soon, breathing becomes difficult and muscular paralysis sets in before the victim becomes comatose and then death follows. The venom of the mamba is neurotoxic, that is to say it attacks the nervous system.

The cobra inflicts a painful bite which leads to moderate swelling, followed by sweating, drowsiness, general bodily weakness and a great deal of dribbling (salivation) dizziness, nausea and vomiting. Speech is impeded and the victim experiences general physical shock and oral muscles, those of the tongue and the windpipe become paralysed.

Breathing becomes difficult and death follows.
A cobra’s venom is also neurotoxic, like that of a mamba. It affects the nervous system, especially the upper respiratory tract.
A puff-adder’s bite is painful, and edema sets in 10 to 30 minutes after. A blood-stained fluid oozes out of the wound, and bleeding occurs under the skin as the victim begins to sweat. Blisters from which bloody fluid seeps out near the bitten area then occur.

If untreated for a couple of days, the limb of a puff adder’s bite victim may have to be amputated. That snake’s poison is haemotoxic, that is, it attacks and destroys the red blood cells of the victim.

A good snakebite kit would contain medicines for these two types of snake poison plus, most likely, a syringe for injecting them. There would also be instructions to guide the user.

But one very, very important warning to everyone who has been bitten by a snake, whatever type of snake, is to do everything that is humanly possible to get to the nearest hospital, and not to apply a tourniquet.

Modern medical practice says that a tourniquet may do more harm than good to the snakebite victim especially if the snake is a puff-adder or even other types of any poisonous reptile.

The puff-adder’s venom causes severe damage to the tissue, and a tourniquet can cause gangrene which could lead to the amputation of the patient’s bitten limb.
However, if the tourniquet is a part of the snakebite kit, it may be applied provided strict instructions are followed.

One of those instructions is that the tourniquet should be released for 15 to 30 seconds every half-hour and be completely removed after two hours, or after adequate anti-venom serum has been administered intravenously, whichever has occurred first.

We should also point out that it helps medical personnel’s performance very much to see the snake that is responsible for the bite. So, if it is possible to kill and take it to the hospital the better.

It is also very important to bear in mind that whatever medicines one has in one’s first aid or snakebite kit, there are not a substitute for what one would be given by qualified medical personnel at the hospital.

Meanwhile, to keep snakes away from one’s yard, it helps to scoffle the yard, and to sprinkle a lot of used oil or diesel along the yard’s borders. Reptiles either fear or hate the smell of oil or diesel.

Saul Gwakuba Ndlovu is a Bulawayo-based retired journalist.

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