Many of the anti-venom treatments sold in Kenya are not registered by the Pharmacy and Poisons Board and their efficacy cannot be guaranteed.
According to an investigation by the Saturday Nation, there are over 10 different brands of anti-venom from different countries, with most of them originating from India.
However, only two brands are registered with the Poisons Board, raising questions about how the drugs passed scrutiny at the ports of entry and how long they have been on sale.
It is the work of the Pharmacy and Poisons Board to certify and regulate the importation of drugs and non-pharmaceuticals products into Kenya.
Reports of Kenyans losing their lives to snake bites have been on the rise and, if left unchecked, this could morph into an epidemic especially due to changing climatic conditions and lack of the right anti-venom in far-flung hospitals.
There are only two approved anti-venom brands — Snake Venom Antiserum (African) manufactured in India and Inoserp from Mexico. They are sold by Laborex Ltd and Pharma. They are recommended for use in African countries because they are made from snake species found on the continent.
A spot check revealed that only Snake Venom Antiserum (African) was available at the Kenya Medical Supplies Agency.
It is only effective against bites by 10 species of snakes.
“We had raised the alarm early this year and warned Kenyans of the fake anti-venoms in the market," said Dr Fred Siyoi, the chief executive officer at the Poisons Board.
"We are going to do a second crackdown on the same.”
He spoke as various NGOs prepared to host an International Snakebite Seminar in Watamu Saturday and Sunday.
Some Coast counties, especially Kilifi and Taita Taveta, are among those with high incidents of snake bites.
Dr Jonah Mwangi, the chief executive officer at Kemsa, said they bought supplies suitable for the most common snakebites.
“We know there are other types (of drugs) which are alleged to be more effective but we cannot procure them unless they are registered by the PPB,” said Dr Mwangi.
“We need to look at a way of stocking more to avoid taking chances.”
Dr Sultani Matendechero, the Head of Neglected Tropical Diseases at the Ministry of Health, acknowledged that there are many ineffective anti-venom brands in the market.
He says many of the brands smuggled into the country are not effective as they are not meant for Africa.
For an anti-venom to be effective, it must developed from the poison of snakes found in a particular region.
To beat the smugglers, he said, he has been in talks with several manufacturers to register their products with a view to increasing the variety of drugs available that are also duly registered.
He added that for a long time, snakebites were not considered a cause for alarm but with the high numbers of deaths, the government has begun paying attention to snakebite treatment and control.
But he lamented that there is a high number of unreported snakebite cases, which denies the government vital statistics.
SNAKE BITE HOTSPOTS
“Right now we have a map that identifies snake bite hotspots and the snakebite burden of key areas, which will help us distribute the antivenom,” Dr Matendechero said.
He called upon the county governments to prioritise stocking of the drugs in enough quantities since all counties in Kenya register snakebites.
The abundance of snakes in arid and semi-arid areas or during the rainy season, coupled with a chronically underfunded health system, means that the snakebite mortality rate across the country is high. Cases of snakebites typically increase at the beginning of the rainy season, when the reptiles come out of their shelter to hunt and breed.
The snakebite menace is also prevalent in dry and arid areas like Baringo, Kitui, Kilifi, Wajir, Garissa, Machakos, Marsabit, Isiolo, Makindu, Mwingi, and Taita Taveta as the snakes slither into homesteads to seek water and shelter.
Not everyone shares Dr Matendechero's optimism.
“We know that the Ministry of Health claims to have spent millions on anti-venom, unfortunately there are no correct drugs in the market,” said Dr Paula Kahumbu, the chief executive officer of WildlifeDirect Kenya.
The organisation has been conducting research on human-wildlife conflict and innovation in Kenya in partnership with local and international universities.
“We found out that the number one form of human-wildlife conflict in Kenya is a snake. More than 1,000 Kenyans, mostly adults, are bitten by snakes annually,” she told the Saturday Nation. She said snakebites have not been taken seriously even though they have been recognised as a global problem.