Is­lan­ders feel bite of ex­pen­sive an­tivenom

African Independent - - NEWS - FABIEN OFFNER

THE VIVID red wound at the base of Gina’s an­kle has re­mained open for three months and re­fuses to heal, leav­ing the Guinea-Bis­sau is­lan­der in con­stant pain. “I thought it was from a piece of wood,” she told AFP, re­call­ing the day when a snake sunk its fangs into her leg. “They had to carry me back home be­cause I couldn’t walk,” she said, sit­ting in front of a thatched hut dec­o­rated with white sea shells. Gina lives on Soga, a tiny speck of land that is one of the 88 is­lands of the Bi­ja­gos ar­chi­pel­ago, an At­lantic par­adise home to dol­phins, tor­toises – and forests full of deadly snakes. Home to some 30 000 peo­ple, the is­lands are recog­nised by the UN’s world her­itage body Unesco for their ex­cep­tion­ally di­verse ecosys­tems, but there is one crea­ture in par­tic­u­lar that thrives among the man­groves. “The Bi­ja­gos is­lands are re­puted for their snakes. All the dead­li­est species live there, in­clud­ing mam­bas and co­bras,” says Ais­sata Re­golla, a re­searcher at GuineaBis­sau’s In­sti­tute for Biover­sity and Pro­tected Marine Ar­eas. “On cer­tain is­lands, our staff can’t walk more than five min­utes with­out see­ing one.” Gina should per­haps count her­self lucky. Every year around 125 000 peo­ple die af­ter be­ing bit­ten by a snake, 30 000 of them in sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa. Many more are left with life-chang­ing in­juries or am­pu­ta­tions. But find­ing an an­tivenom which is af­ford­able is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult, prompt­ing a warn­ing from the World Heath Or­ga­ni­za­tion last year. “The price of some an­tiven­oms has dra­mat­i­cally in­creased in the last 20 years, mak­ing treat­ment un­af­ford­able for the ma­jor­ity of those who need it,” the UN health agency said. On the con­ti­nent, an­tivenom treat­ments are not gen­er­ally cost­ef­fec­tive for the drug com­pa­nies that make them. Worst hit are chil­dren and farm­ers work­ing the land. Ca­cutu Avis earns his liv­ing cut­ting down trees in the for­est be­tween the coast and the vil­lage of Eti­coba. “The cacubas are the most deadly, gen­er­ally if they bite you, you are a goner,” he says, us­ing the lo­cal word for mam­bas. Soga is half an hour from the larger is­land of Bubaque, which has a ba­sic hos­pi­tal, and more than five hours from the cap­i­tal, Bis­sau. But with a sin­gle dose of life­sav­ing an­tivenom cost­ing up to $150 – of­ten more than a month’s salary – many are forced to turn to tra­di­tional heal­ers. “Peo­ple have died in front of me at the heal­ers’ places,” said Jose Nac­tum, direc­tor of the hos­pi­tal in Bubaque. “We don’t have an­tiven­oms for dif­fer­ent species and we have dif­fi­culty iden­ti­fy­ing the type of snake,” he ad­mits. An­tivenom must be kept chilled in a fridge, yet only 10 per­cent of the coun­try has ac­cess to elec­tric­ity. – AFP

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