Beware the black mamba
If surprised or cornered the black mamba will bite readily and may even bite more than once
THIS week, after well-known Labour Court Judge Anton Steenkamp died as a result of a black mamba bite while travelling in Zambia with his wife Catherine, the African Snakebite Institute issued a statement debunking myths and setting the record straight about the black mamba.
While details of the incident involving Steenkamp are still unclear, it appears that the snake bit him on the lower leg and that they were several hours away from the nearest major town.
He died before antivenom could be administered.
The black mamba is by far the largest venomous snake in Africa, reaching close on four metres, and is rated as one of the deadliest snakes in the world.
It occurs from southern KZN through most of the province into adjacent Mozambique, Swaziland, Mpumalanga, northern Gauteng, Limpopo, Northwest, the Northern Cape and further northwards throughout much of Africa, reaching Senegal in the west.
Despite its reputation, it is by no means an aggressive snake and will avoid human beings if given the choice.
It never chases people — a rather popular myth.
But if surprised or cornered it will bite readily and may even bite more than once.
This snake bites few people in South Africa, but of the dozen-odd snakebite fatalities recorded annually, the Black Mamba accounts for about half of them, the other culprit being the Cape Cobra.
The venom of this snake is potently neurotoxic and within minutes of a serious bite, victims experience pins and needles in their lips, and often speak of a metallic taste in the mouth followed by nausea, vomiting, a paralysed tongue resulting in slurred speech, and excessive salivation.
As the victim weakens the eyes become droopy, the pupils dilate and the victim may sweat excessively. Breathing becomes progressively laboured and if untreated, results in death due to a lack of oxygen.
In any mamba bite it is of utmost importance to get the victim to the nearest trauma unit, or if you are far away from a hospital, to meet an ambulance halfway.
Paramedics can assist with artificial respiration or even ventilation of the patient, if they have the correct equipment.
Once hospitalised, the patient will in all probability be ventilated while antivenom is administered or obtained.
From a first aid point of view, pressure immobilisation (wrapping the affected limb tightly with a pressure bandage, not a tourniquet) could delay the onset of symptoms, but a certain amount of skill and training are required to properly apply pressure immobilisation.
If the patient stops breathing, mouthto-mouth resuscitation could be beneficial but for a relatively short period only. A Bag Valve Mask Reserve (BVM), in the right hands, could be life-saving and if used correctly, a patient could be ventilated in this manner for more than an hour or two.
Only trained individuals can use Bag Valve Mask Reserves effectively.
According to Johan Marais, CEO of the African Snakebite Institute, the treatment for serious black mamba bites is antivenom. The polyvalent antivenom, manufactured by the South African Vaccine Producers in Johannesburg, is effective for bites from South Africa’s mambas, cobras, Rinkhals, Puff Adder and Gaboon Adder.
In serious Black Mamba bites, patients receive anything from 12 to 20 vials of antivenom.
In the past few months, South Africa has seen a few Black Mamba bites, and most of these patients were treated with antivenom and recovered fully. The dos and don’ts of first aid for snakebite are available on the free African Snakebite Institute app — ASI Snakes. Otherwise, the app can be downloaded from www.africansnakebiteinstitute.com The Black Mamba — despite its reputation, it is by no means an aggressive snake and will avoid human beings if it is given the choice. PHOTO: FILE