Why, in Kenya, a snake bite is likely to kill you

Monday October 07 2019

A snake found at Mt Elgon National Park in Trans Nzoia County on June 22, 2016. Kenya does not manufacture anti-venom drugs even as 1,000 people die every year from venomous snakebites. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP


If a Kenyan is bitten by a snake, their chances of death are high, the Nation can reveal.

This is because the East African country still lacks correct anti-venom drugs at a time when snakebites are a leading cause of deaths from human-animal conflicts.

Kenya does not manufacture anti-venom drugs even as 1,000 people die every year from venomous snakebites.

The little venom produced in the country is exported to South Africa for manufacture of anti-venom drugs.

And it emerges that the South African drugs are not sold in Kenya because they are yet to be registered.



But what is more worrying is the fact that victims of snakebites have to rely on anti-venom drugs imported mostly from India, and which have been found to be ineffective.

Already, health officials in Lamu and Taita Taveta have reported their displeasure with the Kenya Medical Supplies Agency (Kemsa), which continues to procure the Indian drugs.

Kemsa continues to spend millions of shillings on the bogus imports even as data from Kenya Wildlife Service indicate that between 2014 and 2018, 494 people died from human wildlife conflicts, out of that 333 died from snake bites.

Although the figure looks low, snakebite remains neglected, and probably many deaths are not reported, said a conservationist Paula Kahumbu said in an interview.

The WildlifeDirect CEO wants venomous snake bites given the same status as rabies, a notifiable disease— a disease that requires investigations and follow-ups for proper response.

“This would allow the government to collect data on incidents so as to stock the correct anti-venom in the hotspots,” she said.

“People are dying because of lack of anti-venom, lack of education and lack of trained people to administer the drugs.”


The places where snakebites are prevalent are very remote and the Indian drugs hardly reach there.

These include Kilifi, Baringo, Kitui, Wajir, Garissa, Machakos, Marsabit, Isiolo, Makueni, Taita Taveta and Tharaka-Nithi.

And for those losing their relatives to snake bites, it is now a double loss after MPs removed attacks from the reptiles from list of human-wildlife conflicts that can be compensated by KWS.

In its push for changes to the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act 2013, KWS noted that compensation claims for poisonous snakebites accounted for 81 percent of all human wildlife conflict claims under the old Act.

“The compensation was too huge, the government is still paying for Sh31 billion to victims of snakebites,” said Dr Kahumbu.

The conservationist believes most of the snake bites can be prevented if Kenyans in arid and semi-arid areas were enlightened.


Additionally, lives can be saved if victims use the right anti-venom drugs.

“Not every snake is going to injure you or kill you, but most people try to kill every snake they see, that means they are likely to be bitten by the snake as they try to kill it,” she said.

You can avoid a snake bite by wearing closed shoes while outside, carrying a flashlight at night and cutting grass around homesteads.

You should also leave water outside, especially during dry season to prevent snakes from getting into the house looking for water.

In case a person is bitten or attacked, they should know exactly the type of snake they encountered so as to get the correct prescription.

However, she said the government should make it possible for people to get anti-venom in time, especially in the areas where snakebites are prevalent.


Between 2007 and 2016, snakes killed 614 people and injured 7,772 Kenyans according data, making snake the deadliest wild animal.

In 2017, the World Health Organisation (WHO) listed snakebite as a neglected tropical disease.

The UN agency estimates that about five million snakebites occur each year, poisoning up to 2.7 million.

Reports suggest that globally, between 81,000 and 138,000 people die each year because of snakebites.

Attacks by the poisonous reptiles also cause as many as 400,000 amputations and other permanent disabilities every 12 months.

According to WHO, many snakebites go unreported because often victims seek treatment from non-medical sources or do not have access to healthcare.


Actually 85 percent of the victims in Kenya seek treatment from witchdoctors or herbalists, or use rudimentary means to get rid of the poison from the body like sucking it, said Dr Kahumbu, as she cautioned Kenyans against such interventions.

“Snakebites disproportionately affect poor people. It is sudden and does not discriminate. It is unacceptable that prevention and management is a preserve of few,” said Dr Gladys Mwangi who lectures at the School of Pharmacy at Kenyatta University.

Prof Joseph Gikunju, from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (Jkuat) advocates for more research in Kenya on snakes and snakebite.

“Research on snakebite, snake venom and anti-venom is important in solving the venomous bite from snakes in Kenya,” he said.

Anthony Childs, a herpetologist in Kenya also noted the importance of involving experts in the field.

“My sincere hope is that the government of Kenya will recognise and adopt the expertise of individuals within the herpetology and medical fields,” he said.