We all fear snakes. They can bite, they can debilitate, they can kill — and they do.
They bite 5.4 million each year, 2.7 million envenomings, causing 81,000 to 138,000 deaths, 450,000 amputations, neuro-paralysis, tissue damage and other permanent disabilities.
The highest rate of mortality occurs among children and young male farmers. They wriggle and slither undetected until they nick their victim, crippling and eventually killing him.
The situation is one of extreme alarm, occurring mostly in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The tragedy is that little or no help is available to those poor souls who live mostly in remote rural communities. They must be rushed to the doctor at once. There is no doctor. They must be treated with antibody vials immediately. When you do find a doctor and antibodies, each vial costs between $100 and $300 and you need 10 vials for a total cure.
Tell that to a Swazi farmer whose annual income is $600 per year.
So acute is the condition that within three days Nigerians suffered 6087 bites — who lived, who died, who was left to suffer and wither away, with little care or concern.
Suddenly, awake from a deep sleep, the World Health Organisation (WHO) passed a resolution last February that “snake bites are a global health priority.”
Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan (1938-2018), warned in his final essays that: “Snake bite is the most important tropical disease you have never heard of.”
During the last years of his life he advocated strongly to WHO to give greater priority to this disease.
With all the other research for major diseases, venom research seemed to be the least of their priorities. Who gets bitten by a snake anyway?
Little did they realise that the number of deaths from snake bites in West Africa is 11,000 monthly, surpassing all Ebola deaths in two years (2014-2016).
Is there any hope that our highly sophisticated technology, state-of-the-arts laboratories, advanced scientific research and miraculous medications can find an affordable antidote to the snake’s venom that can reach its victims immediately?
Not unless deaths from snake bites in Europe, Australia and North America are more than a handful. They have doctors, hospitals, vials attention and care, but Africa? Forget it.
There are 3,700 species of snakes and they are not all venomous, but who can tell. Its very sight strikes fear, revulsion, horror and panic, causing a stampede out of its path.
Yet, there was a time when snakes were considered divine deities, especially in Africa. The chief centre of serpent worship was Dahomey. The serpent temple was tenanted by 50 snakes which were treated with reverence and affection. Death was the penalty of killing a snake.
The Rainbow God of Ashanti had the form of a boa; the Amazulus and Betsiles of Madagascar assigned special abodes for snakes and the Masai regarded each species as the habitat of a particular tribe.
Ancient Mesopotamia, Sumeria, Assyria, Babylonia considered the snake a symbol of wisdom and protection —attendants of the underworld.
Powerful in pre-historic cultures such as Iran, they were patrons of fertility, water and wealth.
The cobra was the primal Egyptian snake goddess. The earliest records describe her as the patron and protector of the country, of all deities and the Pharaohs. So loyal, the Egyptian cobra would die first before allowing an invader to enter the land. She was the all-seeing eye of vengeance and wisdom.
Depicted as the Crown of Egypt, the cobra never lost her position in the Egyptian pantheon.
Almost every cult was associated with the serpent or snake, used intermittently, from the Mayans to the aborigines, from Africa to Australia they have been held in a position of high esteem.
Whatever happened to reverse its divinity and drop it to the lowest level as the most hated, most reviled creature on earth?
Shall we put the blame on Eve,or better still, Lucifer? In the Biblical context it was Lucifer who disobeyed God’s command. He entered the body of the creature, who stood upright, and tempted Adam and Eve causing the Fall of Man.
According to the Old Testament, God cursed Lucifer as well as the serpent and struck him down. He tried to rise three times and was struck again three times. Why was the creature punished? An unwilling partner of Lucifer, he knew nothing of the crime.
God cursed the animal because it was the instrument of temptation. It would be a constant symbol of the degradation of Satan. Satan became synonymous with the snake, condemned to crawl forever and lick the dirt. The expressions “snake in the grass” and “bite the dust” are modern applications of this legend.
In Buddhism and Shinto, a harmonious coexistence with the snake continues for 14 centuries.
The three great religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam regard it as a cunning, deceptive trickster “who promotes as good what God has forbidden”.
He crawls and eats dust, he is evil and vindictive. A Muslim is to kill it immediately if encountered in the desert. A Texas man almost died after being bitten by the severed head of a snake.
Leaving mythology and religion aside, can modern technology save the lives and welfare of millions from the venomous snake? The research to produce antibodies is the same as was practised in the 19th century.
Surely they can do better this century.
“A snake that cannot shed its skin, perishes.”
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)