THE majority of snakes in Zimbabwe are not dangerous but some of them, particularly the black mamba and puff adder, can be deadly. A Rushinga schoolgirl recently died about 30 minutes after reportedly being bitten by a black mamba.
This is the season for snakes in Zimbabwe. After hibernating between April and August, they move around searching for food between September and March. During this period they increase their body weight so that they can be sustained by body fat and water when they go into hibernation.
There are 80 different species of snake in Zimbabwe, 20 of which are considered dangerous, with six species accounting for 75% of fatal snake bites.
These are the black mamba, snouted cobra, Mozambique spitting cobra, puff adder, boom slang and Gaboon viper.
People at high-risk of snakebites include agricultural workers, herders, fishermen and hunters, as well as people living in poorly built houses and those with limited access to healthcare.
In their search for food and water, snakes often enter homesteads, particularly where there are infestations of rats.
If a snake bites you, it is likely you will have seen it doing so. However, if you have not seen the snake, you may feel the pain of the bite but not know what caused it.
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Common signs of snakebite include the presence of two puncture wounds from the reptile’s fangs and swelling and redness around them.
If you are bitten by a venomous snake, you may experience a sharp throbbing and burning pain around the bite area. You may also feel pain all the way up, whichever limb is affected, such as in the groin if the bite was on the leg or in the armpit if the bite was on the arm. Other possible symptoms include abnormal blood clotting and bleeding, low blood pressure, a faster heart rate, weaker pulse, nausea and vomiting, diarrhoea, anxiety, headaches, dizziness, blurred vision and difficulty breathing.
There may be increased production of saliva and sweat as well as weakness in your muscles and numbness in the face or limbs.
If you have an allergic reaction to a snake bite, you could suffer from anaphylactic shock. Symptoms of an allergic reaction include a constant cough, wheezing and difficulty speaking due to extreme tightness in the throat and a swollen tongue. Young children may become pale.
What to do
If bitten by a snake, seek professional medical attention immediately. Stay calm and as still as possible. Movement speeds up the spread of venom in the lymphatic system.
If you are helping someone who has been bitten by a snake make the person lie down. Raise the affected limb slightly above the level of the heart.
If bitten on the hand, arm, foot or lower leg, remove rings, bangles, bracelets, watches, anklets and any other tight jewellery, as well as tight clothing and shoes.
If the bite is suspected to be from a black mamba or cobra and you are more than an hour or two away from the closest medical facility, apply pressure bandages to the affected limb. This may inhibit the spread of venom while on the way to hospital. The idea is not to slow down the blood flow but to put pressure on the lymphatic system in order to reduce the rate at which venom is absorbed.
In serious snakebite cases involving snakes with predominantly neurotoxic venom, such as the black mamba and some cobras, the victim may experience difficulty breathing. In severe cases, especially where small children are involved, this could happen within less than half an hour.
In such cases, begin mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Assisted breathing while transporting the victim to hospital can be life-saving.
Do not try to cut or suck out the venom. Snake venom quickly attaches to local tissue and is absorbed into the lymphatic system so little venom can be removed by suction. Cutting may also expose the wound to secondary infection.
Never apply ice or boiling water, lotion or potions. Leave the bite site alone, except for cleaning it with cool water and applying a sterile gauze dressing.
Do not give the victim alcohol. It is of no help. If an antidote to the venom is required this should be injected intravenously in a hospital environment and usually in large quantities.
Some patients have an allergic reaction to antivenom which could result in anaphylaxis, a life threatening condition if not treated promptly.
Snakes are often found where there are rats. They also like to live under rubbish. So try to ensure there are no piles of rubbish where snakes or rats could hide.
When confronted by a snake, it is important to avoid rapid movements and to try to stay stationary. If the snake stands its ground keep your eyes on it and slowly withdraw. Usually the snake will slither away.
Snakes are generally docile. They are most likely to attack when they feel threatened. If you see one, leave it alone. Do not try to kill or catch it. Throwing rocks at a snake is dangerous.
Do not handle snakes you come across, even small ones. Baby venomous snakes are just as dangerous as the adults.
Never tamper or play with a seemingly dead snake. Snakes may play dead when scared or threatened, only to strike you the moment an opportunity arises.
Wear boots and thick trousers or jeans if you spend a great deal of time outdoors. Hunters, hikers, bird watchers and fishermen should consider wearing snake gaiters that protect the lower leg.
Do not put your hands in out-of-sight places, especially when mountain climbing. Some snakes are known to bask on small ledges. They are likely to bite a hand that suddenly appears close by.
Never walk barefoot or without a torch at night when camping or walking in the bush. Many snakes are active after sunset. Slow-moving snakes such as the puff adder are easily stepped on.
If you do not know the type of snake that has bitten you or someone you are with, carefully take a photograph of it from a safe distance. This can be used to help identify it.
The information in this article is provided as a public service by the Cimas iGo Wellness programme, which is designed to promote good health. It is provided for general information only and should not be construed as medical advice. Readers should consult their doctor or clinic on any matter related to their health or the treatment of any health problem. — [email protected] or WhatsApp 0772 161 829 or phone 024-2773 0663