[CAPE TOWN] There is, perhaps, no better illustration for the difficulty of accessing appropriate antivenom in Africa than the death of Ryan Soobrayan, manager of the African Reptiles and Venom snake farm, in September this year.

The South African snake farm, ironically, supplies snake venom to laboratories for the development of antivenom, and also provides training in the handling of venomous snakes. Soobrayan died on 29 September after being bitten by a black mamba, whose venom he was trying to extract. But it was not the snakebite itself that killed him — it was anaphylactic shock, an allergic reaction following treatment with inappropriate antivenom.

African Reptiles and Venom, which maintains 500 snakes at its premises for venom extraction, is one of the few companies involved in the production of antivenom in Sub-Saharan Africa, where approximately one million snakebites occur each year. Around half of these result in envenomation, with 25,000 ending in death and another 25,000 in permanent disabilities.

A problem of poverty

The rural areas of the West and East African savannah are at high risk for snakebite, because they are home to many dangerous snake species such as the carpet viper, says Julien Potet, policy advisor on neglected tropical diseases and vaccines at the Médecins Sans Frontières’ Access Campaign, which supports the roll-out of cheap medicine in developing nations.

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