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President William Ruto’s government should not dismiss snake farming outright; it could be an important contributor to the economy. And a life-saver.

The reaction of Kenyans to the Roots Party’s proposal to adopt snake farming in order to contribute to the economy was not surprising. Most people are squeamish about snakes, perhaps because of religious beliefs, or because of trauma from having been bitten by one, or because of knowing someone who did not survive a snakebite. Others simply suffer from ophidiophobia,  an extreme fear of snakes. Then there are those on the extreme end of the spectrum; those who eat snakes, like communities in Central and West Africa, Southeast Asia and China. There are the more adventurous ones who sustain a thriving, international trade in exotic snakes that are kept as pets. But regardless of our feelings towards snakes, they are important to the ecosystem as they manage rodent populations and are a food source for raptors, species of small mammals like mongoose and honey badgers, and other reptiles.

I do not hold fort for the Roots Party of Kenya, but embracing snake farming is not a farfetched idea, and I will tell you why. First, snakebite envenoming is a global health crisis, and secondly snake venom is important in pharmaceutical research; proteins found in snake venom are used in immunosuppressants and other medicines such Captopril, Aggrastat, and Eptifibatide which are used to treat diseases like arthritis, hypertension, heart failure and the effects of diabetes on the kidneys.

Snakebite envenoming results from the injection of highly toxic secretions from the bite of a venomous snake or from the spray of venom into the eyes or broken skin. Snakebite envenoming was declared a neglected tropical disease by the World Health Organization (WHO) in June 2017. Globally, the statistics indicate that over 5 million people are bitten by snakes, 138,000 of whom die from envenoming annually, while at least 400,000 are permanently disabled, or suffer lifelong effects. Of those who die, 30,000 are from Africa. It is a disease of poverty as it mainly affects the rural poor, who work in farms or whose dwellings do not provide adequate protection from crawling critters, who cannot afford proper footwear, and who will resort to traditional healers when bitten by a snake because the cost of healthcare is  not within their reach; in many cases, healthcare is literally far away.

Snakebite envenoming was declared a neglected tropical disease by the World Health Organization in June 2017.

In Kenya, data on snakebite envenoming is not accurate and is often difficult to obtain. In the preface to a report by  the Ministry of Health titled Guidelines for Prevention Diagnosis and Management of Snakebite Envenoming in Kenya, the Director of Medical Services, Dr Jackson Kioko, puts incidences of snakebite in Kenya at 15,000 annually. It is important to note that throughout the document, this is the only reference to any data on snakebite incidences. The estimate from media reports and from organizations such as Wildlife Direct is that at least 1,000 people die from snakebite envenoming every year, and thousands of others are left with permanent injuries, both physical and mental.

Mutha Ward in Kitui South is about 67 kilometers from the county capital, Kitui, and 280 kilometers from Nairobi. It has a population of about 34,000 people, most of whom are small-scale farmers and traders. Like much of Kitui, the landscape of Mutha is arid and semi- arid scrubland. The main economic activity is small-scale agriculture and bee keeping. There is also an abundance of snakes in the region (particularly puff adders, black mambas and cobras) and as a result, incidences of snakebite and snakebite envenoming are frequent. According to one resident, there are at least two snakebite victims every week, mostly from puff adders. That is at least 104 victims a year.

The nearest referral hospital is in Kitui town, which is almost 70 kilometres away. Mutha Health Centre and Ndakani, Kiati, Kalambani and Kaatene dispensaries are the health facilities in the area; they do not stock snakebite antivenom. Further, as Justina Wamae told us, the cost of antivenom is exorbitant, retailing at between KSh10,000 to KSh14,000 (approximately US$100 to US$140) per vial. On average, at least five vials are required for a single treatment. Mutha is representative of the situation in Kitui. The same is true in Baringo, Samburu, Kajiado, the Coast, Northern and Western Kenya.

Access to snakebite antivenom is confined to referral hospitals which are at a considerable distance from the health centres where it would be closer to the victims and where it is much needed. Even then, the supply is not enough to meet the demand. Kenya does not manufacture antivenom and relies on imports from South Africa and India. We do not import enough antivenom from South Africa, which is the most effective as venomous snakes found in that country are the same ones to be found in Kenya, and nor do are referral hospitals adequately stocked. Indian antivenom is ineffective because the venomous snakes found in India are not the same as those in Kenya; for example, antivenom for a Russel’s viper, one of India’s most deadly snakes, is ineffective against puff adder venom, even though they are both vipers. The Kenya Snakebite Research and Interventions Centre is working to produce East Africa’s first antivenom, and trials are ongoing. This is progress, although it will take a while before Kenya can adequately stock its hospitals and health facilities with a homegrown solution.

Kenya does not manufacture antivenom and relies on imports from South Africa and India.

The County Government of Kitui has built the Mutomo Reptile Park and Snake Venom Research Centre in Mutomo, about 30 kilometres northwest of Mutha and, in April 2021, invited bids from private investors to run the facility. As far as I have been able to establish, there were no bidders. The most logical partner, in my view, would have been KEMRI, but given how much our national budget is averse to medical research, it comes as no surprise that KEMRI was not a contender. The potential contribution of the newly-opened research centre to the economy of Kitui, the impact it would have had on medical research this side of the world, can only be imagined. There are snake venom research centres in Guinea, Nigeria, Benin, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa. However, in the entire African continent, only South Africa commercially produces snakebite antivenom, and given the snakebite statistics, supply does not adequately meet demand.

The Kenyan government should, therefore, consider snake venom research for the manufacture of antivenom and other important medical interventions as a critical agenda. It will save lives.