The harmattan is approaching in Nigeria and other countries in West Africa. The season occurs in the subcontinent from the end of November to the middle of March. It is characterised by the dry and dusty northeasterly trade wind of the same name, which blows from the Sahara Desert over West Africa into the Gulf of Guinea.
Apart from sundry discomfort that the wind causes us, it drives one creature most people cringe about into our path or even our homes: snakes.
Especially when frightened, snakes bite, in the dark or at daytime, and inject venom that may be lethal if the victim does not receive prompt medical attention.
Snakebite poison is a major public health problem in rural communities of Nigeria as indeed in many parts of the tropics. It has been confirmed to be a major cause of mortality and morbidity.
In Nigeria, it is estimated that more than 10,000 people are bitten by snakes each year, though the exact death toll is unknown.
According to official data, only 8.5 per cent of snakebite victims attend hospitals in Nigeria. Bites occur more often while victims were farming, herding or walking although the spitting cobra may bite victims who step on it in its sleep.
The WHO estimates that about 100 000 people die each year as a result of snake bites, and around three times as many amputations and other permanent disabilities are caused by snakebites annually.
The significant features of snake bite are spontaneous haemorrhage, shock, local swelling, bleeding and, occasionally, necrosis. Bites may be complicated by amputation in the affected body parts, blindness, disability, amongst others. If not treated within 26 hours, deep necrosis may set in, requiring amputation of the affected body part
Antivenom remains the hallmark and mainstay of envenoming management while studies in Nigeria confirm its protection of over 80 per cent against mortality from carpet-viper bites.
However, the availability, distribution, and utilisation of antivenom remain challenging.
Last year, PREMIUM TIMES published a report by the News Agency of Nigeria about the havoc snake bites wreaked in Gombe and Plateau states, driven by an acute scarcity of snake anti-venom drugs in the country.
In a telephone interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Fatai Oyediran of the department of public health in the health ministry, however, controverted the report. He said they had 3600 cases of snake bites generally in the country and the total mortality for last year was around 103 for the whole country, not just Gombe and Plateau, even though Gombe had the highest number.
Asked how prepared relevant health agencies are for snake bite cases during this year’s harmattan season, he said “anti-venom is the first item” on their list for the budget.
“Usually, we maker provisions for about 5500 anti-venom and we have provisions for this year (2018) up to 2021,” Mr Oyediran said.
“The only problem is the funding released by the government, to procure to the quantity we want. The drastic cut in the budget in recent times is affecting the money being released, even when we budget for the 6000 anti-venom, we may end up not getting up to that.”
How to keep snakes away from your home
Snakes do not like the hot temperature of harmattan any more than most of us do. In fact, on particularly hot days, snakes have to scramble for refuge in cooler places or they will overheat and die.
Therefore, you might run into snakes as they move back and forth from sunny places to shade.
Snakes come to your home for the cover, moisture, darkness, and food it provides. To drive them away, you have to take all these things away from them. Take as many steps to deprive snakes of cover in your home as possible.
1. Cut the grass short, clear bushes around your house. Snakes hate feeling exposed and avoid open, highly-visible areas.
2. Inspect your home, paying special attention to the gaps under the door. Seal cracks in the foundation of your house or wall and patch the holes.
3. Move your wood piles, these are great spots for snakes as they hate being exposed.
4. Avoid opening your front doors, leaving your windows open for too long (some of these snakes can reach high heights and they are very quiet, you would not see or hear them enter your house.
5. Before sitting under that tree that has that cooling shades, check if there are no snakes lurking around the branches, they love the cool shades too.
6. Check your bed, under your sheets and surrounding before going to bed.
7. Avoid chilling outside the house with mattresses, mats, and wrappers in the evening.
8. Get a snake repellent.
What to do if bitten by a snake
1. Give analgesic for local pain which may be severe, and might be helpful for calming effects.
2. The site of the bite should be wiped but not incised, because incisions can aggravate bleeding.
3. Remove anything tight from around the bitten part of the body.
4. Avoid traditional first aid methods, herbal medicines and other unproven or unsafe forms of first aid.
5. Transport the person bitten to a health facility as soon as possible.
6. Vomiting may occur, so place the person on their left side in the recovery position.
7. Closely monitor airway and breathing and be ready to resuscitate if necessary.
8. If the snake has been killed, it should be taken along to the hospital, in order to identify if it is poisonous or not and what kind of anti-poison is most appropriate.
9. During transit, the body generally and the bitten limb, in particular, should be moved as little as possible, to minimise the spread of venom.