Snake Pharm is a biotech company exploring the potential of natural resistances to venom, with a goal of developing a low cost, highly effective treatment to snake bites. We are also trying to mitigate human / snake encounters through education, conservation and media collaborating with non profits and universities worldwide
In Zululand, South Africa is not only one of the hardest hit areas in South Africa for snake bites, it’s also an area steeped in culture and myth around snakes.
Snakebites kill more than 100,000 people per year, the World Health Organization estimates. The organization recently took a step to reduce that number by adding venomous snake bites to its list of neglected tropical diseases – a classification that could help get more resources allocated to fighting this public health problem.
(WHO did acknowledge that snakebites aren’t a disease but “an injury” but the “envenoming” — the injection of the snake’s venom — can be considered a disease.)
Doctors Without Borders, which had previously criticized the global health community for not paying enough attention to snakebites, welcomed the announcement.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the best estimate is that 20,000 to 32,000 people die from snakebites each year, says Julien Potet, a neglected tropical diseases policy adviser at Doctors Without Borders, where he focuses on sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. It can take several hours for victims in sub-Saharan Africa to reach clinics, Potet says, and he worries about a lack of access to anti-venom.
Banywich Bone, 18, of South Sudan was bitten by a snake while sleeping at home. His left leg had to be amputated above the knee after the wound became infected.
According to WHO, many snakebite victims are farmers and people in poor, rural communities far from capital cities. Farmers, including migrant workers, are sometimes bitten while walking through fields. Some of them sleep in the fields where they work, putting them at greater risk for bites, he says.
Potet remembers the case of a teenage boy in the lowlands of Ethiopia who had been walking back from the fields to his village at night, without a flashlight and with no boots. A snake bit him on the ankle. About 12 hours passed between the time when the snake bit the boy and the time he arrived at the hospital, because the family had struggled to find someone to take the boy to the hospital during the night. A farm manager finally brought the boy to the hospital on a farm tractor.
This boy’s story isn’t so unusual — it can take victims 6 to 12 hours to get to the hospital after a snake bite, Potet says.
“In some cases, it may be too late,” he says.
In this case, the teenage boy was treated in time and survived.
Still, Potet says, “We need to reduce as much as possible the time between the bite and the treatment.”
The cost of treatment for snake bites can also deter victims from seeking help, Potet says. Clinics or hospitals may charge from $80 to $150. Doctors Without Borders provides free treatment for snake bites.
A common source of poisonous bites in some parts of Africa is the carpet viper, he says. It’s one of the snakes whose venom can cause bleeding and prevent blood from coagulating.
Potet also worries about the supply of anti-venom in sub-Saharan Africa.
“As the [African] market is not very lucrative for pharmaceutical companies,” he says, “some of the companies recently stopped production.”
Anti-venom quality can also be a concern. Some products are put on the market without robust testing, he says.
WHO is conducting a formal evaluation of anti-venom products intended for use in sub-Saharan Africa in an effort to improve the quality.
Then there’s the matter of prevention. It’s actually very basic, says Potet: using flashlights when walking home at night from fields, wearing boots and shoes in the fields and educating people so they know to seek treatment as quickly as possible — and stressing that local healers cannot substitute for anti-venom treatment.
Other diseases on the list of neglected tropical diseases include rabies, scabies and leprosy.
Its raining in Zululand. Which is great for snakes and nature in general. At the village close to our research station, there have been 3 venomous snake bites in the last month. One person is sadly still in hospital, with a suspected puff adder bite. We have our site prepared and installation of research equipment has begun, with the support of the local community, businesses and conservation groups.
SPECIAL THANKS to the team at Phinda private reserve for helping with heavy equipment.
More updates soon.
Durban – A former Phoenix resident whose lifelong passion was snakes died at the weekend after being bitten by a Black Mamba while extracting its venom for medical use.
Ryan Soobrayan, a professional herpetologist died in hospital on Saturday, a day before his 27th birthday.
Soobrayan, who relocated with his parents from Durban to Gauteng, was a snake farm manager for African Reptiles and Venom (ARV). The company provides snake identification and awareness, snakebite treatment and first aid venomous snake handling.
On Wednesday, the fang of a Black Mamba punctured his finger while he was extracting its venom.
Mike Perry the owner of ARV said Soobrayan was in control of the snakes, venom extraction and due to his experience he sometimes stood in for him in presenting training.
Perry explained Soobrayan had a severe anaphylactic reaction from the Mamba venom.
“His untimely demise was not due to the bite but as a result of anaphylaxis. We are devasted by the incident. Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction,” he said.
Ryan Soobrayan, 26, who relocated with his parents to Gauteng, was a snake farm manager for African Reptiles and Venom(ARV). Picture supplied.
Eugene Soobrayan, his uncle, said Ryan was born in Durban and lived with the family in Phoenix where he attended Northlands Primary. They had relocated to Gauteng 17 years ago.
“He died before he could turn 27 years old. Snakes had been his passion. The family, his two sisters and his parents are still coming to grips with what happened. Funeral arrangements are still being made,” he said.
Catherine René Soobrayan said her brother was trained in snake handling lost his life doing what he loved.
“To all who have sent their love, we appreciate it. Our Ryan has left us and we feel empty. Our life will never ever be the same. He made a difference in everyone’s life, where ever he went. We miss him so much and we ask that if you did not know my brother and you have nothing but speculation to post please desist. Everyone who knows my brother knows that he was careful, always. This was a terrible accident,” Soobrayan wrote on Facebook.
Shaun Venter, a close friend of Soobrayan and a Bluff snake and reptile rescuer, said professional snake handlers took the risk of being bitten every day. He said people like Soobrayan, who worked on extracting venom for medicine were unpraised heroes.
“This is exactly why I got out of dealing with hots (dangerous snakes). He got a small pinprick on the thumb and had a massive negative reaction. He was assisted by the best in the country and everything was done to try an save this awesome soul. He was a friend to a lot of us,” Venter added.
Tributes were pouring for Soobrayan on Facebook.
Kurt Schatzl, the President at New England Herpetological Society, said there are folks being kept alive by medications created with snake venom and venoms are also used in research to find cures or treatments for a variety of illnesses.
“There’s only one way to get that venom; you have to handle adult venomous snakes with your hands. It’s incredibly dangerous and also incredibly altruistic and heroic. I have friends who extract for scientific research and it’s always a worry that you’ll get a call sometime,” he said.
Schatzl said, “If you’re taking high blood pressure or anticoagulant medicines, you owe your very life to individuals like this man. People in the field of venomous herpetology that work behind the scenes and out of the limelight for the good of humanity.”
Robert Wedderburn, a wildlife film-maker, said he was amazed by Ryan’s passion for snakes and his dedication to learning as much about them as possible.
“He recently went out of his way to help me through a rather traumatic experience and gave me support when I had not even asked for it,” he said.
The black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) is one of the most feared snake species of the African savanna. It has a potent, fast-acting neurotoxic venom comprised of dendrotoxins and α-neurotoxins associated with high fatality in untreated victims. Current antivenoms are both scarce on the African continent and present a number of drawbacks as they are derived from the plasma of hyper-immunized large mammals. Here, we describe the development of an experimental recombinant antivenom by a combined toxicovenomics and phage display approach. The recombinant antivenom is based on a cocktail of fully human immunoglobulin G (IgG) monoclonal antibodies capable of neutralizing dendrotoxin-mediated neurotoxicity of black mamba whole venom in a rodent model. Our results show the potential use of fully human monoclonal IgGs against animal toxins and the first use of oligoclonal human IgG mixtures against experimental snakebite envenoming.
Atractaspis fallax PETERS 1867 Small-scaled Burrowing Asp
HOODING AND CORKSCREW BEHAVIOUR
The behaviour described here happened during a photo session with two snakes and does not appear to
have been recorded before. Initially, the larger animal assumed the typical Atractaspis defence attitude
(Branch, 1998, Field Guide to the Snakes and Other Reptiles of Southern Africa. Struik, Cape Town) of
snout facing at a 90-degree angle to the ground, neck raised off the ground, arched and slightly flared. This behaviour continued for approximately 30 seconds. Upon further provocation, the animal lifted its head and neck, standing about 150mm perpendicular to the ground. The neck was flared and the head was held parallel to the ground, highly reminiscent of Aspidelaps. (Fig. 1.)
This stance was held for about 90 seconds, after which the snake relaxed and started to drop back to the ground. As I tapped the animal lightly on the caudal part of its body and it immediately resumed the defence display. After this initial display, I set up a photo box to better document this behaviour. I started with the same animal, the larger male, and placed him in the box. He started with the arched-neck display, but after a tap on the body he stood up to a height of about 150mm to look at the source of the harassment. He maintained this position for about two minutes and then started to lower his forebody. When touched, he rose up again and maintained the raised forebody and narrow hood.
The second, smaller, male was put into the photo box. Once again, when tapped on the caudal part of the body, near the vent, he quickly raised the forepart of his body, about a quarter of his length to stand at about the same height as the first animal.
Another observation made in this species was when a third male was being cleaned. The sequence started with usual behaviour of downward nose pointing and hooding. Then the animal made a tight coil with its head in the centre and its body tightly coiled around it. The tail was left out of the coil, similar to the regular behaviour of Prosymna. This behaviour was maintained until the animal was left alone for a few minutes. Upon further harassment, the animal re-assumed the corkscrew position. This behaviour was replicated a few weeks later by the same animal during a photographic session by David Northcott.
These behavioural displays are believed not to have been previously documented. S. Spawls, D.
Broadley and W. Wuster later confirmed that they had never seen or heard of this behaviour in this species (pers.com).