Using nature to get rid of snakes and their venom

Monday August 31 2015

The bulb of the haemanthus multiflorus

The bulb of the haemanthus multiflorus (fireballl lily) is given to a snakebite victim to chew as first aid. photo by Rachel Mabala. 

By Patrick Wabuteya

Snakes are some of the most feared creatures on the planet. They are found almost everywhere especially in isolated bushy areas, or in rocky areas.

When they occur, snake bites cause alarm and can be lethal. All snake venom consists of a unique cocktail of enzymes, which can result in rapid tissue death. Antidotes for this venom are very expensive and it is often a long distance to the nearest doctor.

As a result, many people rely on natural resources for treating potentially fatal bites.

Richard Othieno, a horticulturalist at the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC), explains that a variety of medicinal plants can be used as first aid in case someone is bitten by a snake. He insists that these remedies are only first aid and the victim should be rushed to the nearest hospital as soon as possible. Some of the plants commonly used as antivenoms in Uganda include;

1. Haemanthus multiflorus (fireball lily) also known as kasoota in Luganda, is a bulbous plant commonly grown as an ornamental plant for its brilliantly coloured flowers.

Although it is known to be poisonous itself, the plant is useful for its antivenom properties. “It is the general antivenom for all snakebites, from poisonous and non-poisonous snakes. The bulb of the plant is given to the victim to chew, and some may be put on the wound. It works systemically and somebody can be relieved after chewing it,” Othieno explains. He warns, however, that given the plant’s toxic nature, not too much should be chewed, lest the victim suffers other side effects due to the plant poisons.

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2. Jatropha curcas (the pig nut) is another plant that bears anti-venom properties. It is locally known as ekiroowa in Luganda and is also a poisonous, semi-evergreen shrub that is resistant to a high degree of aridity, allowing it to be grown even in areas with little water. Given its toxicity, it is not ingested. The latex from the leaves or fruits can be put on the site of the snakebite. The plant also has pesticidal and fungicidal properties

3. Sansevieria species plants commonly referred to as the mother-in-law’s tongue or akagoogwa in Luganda, because of its long leaves that are typically arranged in a rosette around the growing point. “It is named so because mothers-in-law are known to quarrel too much, so they are said to have long tongues,” Othieno adds.

The rhizome (root) of the plant can be crushed or plainly be given to the victim to chew. Sansevieria is a common plant found in forested area and can also be grown as a home plant. The leaves are used for fibre production to make ropes and for bandages in traditional first aid. The plant’s sap has antiseptic qualities.

4. Canavalia ensiformis (jack bean) also known as kijanjalo, is a legume commonly used for animal fodder and human nutrition. It is a twining plant with deep roots, which makes it drought resistant. The beans, though mildly toxic, are eaten raw after the snakebite and some of the crushed beans can be put on the wound. Excessive consumption should be avoided.

5. Star or Bermuda grass, scientifically known as the cynodon dactylon and locally named kalanda lugo, is a very common kind of grass. It can be used to immobilise the injured limb after a snakebite, and then any portion of the plant can be crushed, mixed with water and given to the casualty to drink.

To repel snakes

UWEC horticulturalist, Richard Othieno, holds
UWEC horticulturalist, Richard Othieno, holds the jack bean Canavalia ensiformis, which is used as a first aid treatment for snakebites. photo by Rachel Mabala.

Other plants can be used to repel snakes because of their unpleasant smell. These can be planted in the compound or around the garden to ward off snakes thus lessening chances of snake bites.

Some such snake-repelling plants include the castor oil plant, Mexican marigold, tobacco, onions and garlic, as well as citronella grass which is also an ingredient in insecticide.

MEDICAL TREATMENT FOR SNAKEBITES

A snake bite can occur at any time regardless of where the person is and the victim can easily die if the snake is venomous or poisonous.

Dr Alex Kakoraki, a general practitioner at Murchison Bay Hospital in Luzira, however notes that before a victim is rushed to hospital for treatment, a quick first aid should be conducted to prevent the venom from exceeding to the heart or other delicate parts of the body like the kidney.

“Immediately identify the injured part and tie it with a piece of cloth above the affected area to prevent the venom from spreading to the rest of the body. This should however be done in an interval of five minutes to avoid weakening of the tissues.

Attach a black stone to sack out the poison as you monitor the person to see whether there is a change of voice because the patient having a hoarse voice means that there is an infect caused to the respiratory system. After, rush the person to the hospital for further treatment,” he says.

While at the hospital, treatment is given depending on the type of snake but the victim will be given stabilising medicine and also have heartbeat, pressure and other checkups done. However, if the snake was very poisonous, the victim is given an anti-venom treatment to counter the venom.

Use of the black stone in treating snakebites

A black stone is a carbonised absorptive animal
A black stone is a carbonised absorptive animal bone. The stone is used as first aid for snakebites. Photo by Rachel Mabala.

According to Richard Othieno, a horticulturalist at Uganda Wildlife Education Centre, a black stone can be used alongside medicinal antivenom plants to treat snake bites.

It is a carbonised bone of an animal and is used because of its absorptive qualities to neutralise the fatal effects of snakebite.

However, it does not replace treatment with the serum antidote, which is what is recommended, but in the absence of the serum it can be of great help.

How it is used
Othieno advises that when there is a snakebite; first ensure that the patient is calm in order to lower chances of his progress into shock. Then wash the wound and initiate bleeding by making small cuts around the area of the bite. Place the black stone on the wound until it sticks there by itself and leave for 25 to 30 minutes as you arrange to take the victim to hospital.

After use, boil the stone in hot water to disinfect it, for about 10 minutes then rinse in soapy and also in clear water.
Hang the stone out in dry air for about five minutes and then keep it in an airtight container.

To test for the absorptive power of the black stone, put it on the tongue and it will stick like glue.

According to Othieno, the black stone is about 30 per cent effective and that is why the victim should be taken to hospital as soon as possible. The stone is only used for first aid.

He also adds that the stone is very durable, if kept in an environment that’s not damp, and that it should also be handled with care as it is very brittle. The black stone can also be used for other poisons like bee stings, insect bites and scorpion stings. It helps to lessen the swelling and can also be used to drain pus from septic wounds.

Where to find it
The black stone is a very rare treasure nowadays. However, sample pieces can be found in places like snake parks like the reptile village in Entebbe.

Also, some herbalists often claim to have pieces of the stone. Its price often differs depending on where it is bought.
However, at the lowest price, the stone averagely costs Shs20,000. The price also depends on the size of the black stone.

Despite the fact that it is widely praised for its effectiveness, the black stone is also limited in use especially for particular snake bites such as those of very venomous snakes for example the Egyptian Cobra, the Black Mamba and the Gabon Viper. These snakes are known to inject a lot of venom and by the time the stone is used, the victim may be dead.

drugs for snake venom

According to Denis Walusimbi, a pharmacist at Paragon Hospital in Bugolobi, Kampala, the goals of pharmacotherapy in the treatment of snakebites is to neutralise the toxin, to reduce morbidity, and to prevent complications.

Antivenins which are neutralising antibodies, can be given. Two kinds of antivenin are available; that which is derived from horse serum after the horse is injected with sub lethal doses of snake venom and the other, CroFab, an immunoglobulin (antibody) derived from sheep.

One must remember while the antivenin may be lifesaving, it also may lead to hypersensitivity, immediate (anaphylaxis) or delayed hypersensitivity (serum sickness) reactions.
To achieve maximum efficacy, administer the antivenin within four to six hours of the snakebite.

Antibiotics are also given upon arrival at the hospital but these most likely benefit only severe cases.
Broad-spectrum antibiotic prophylaxis such as Ceftriaxone is recommended.

Snakes do not harbour clostridium tetani in their mouths, but bites may carry the bacteria therefore, tetanus prophylaxis is also recommended.

avoid snakebites
Avoid walking along narrow lonely paths.
Wear protective clothing especially long pants and tough shoes when walking through long bushes

Keep away potential snake habitats such as large non-disposable materials like drums, rotting logs, and also avoid constructing in wetlands and near large rocks where snakes usually stay.

Avoid sharing the house with animals such as chicken. Also keep away rodents which attract snakes to prey on them.

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