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SA feels the sting of snake anti-venom shortage

The critical lack of snake anti-venom in South Africa, as reported in MedicalBrief last week, is creating growing panic, and despite the National Health Laboratory Service’s (NHLS) Mzi Gcukumana saying it had “increased production, resulting in a steady stabilisation of output”, it appears there’s little to be found, anywhere in the country.

Last Thursday, Cape snake experts were battling to find snake anti-venom for a man who had been bitten by a Cape cobra, with Steven Meighan from Deep South Reptile Rescue saying that all attempts to locate any had been futile, as everyone had run out.

Arno Naude from Snake Bite Assist said there may be a couple of vials left somewhere in the country, but it’s not clear where, reports Daily Maverick.

Naude said a KwaZulu-Natal man was in severe distress last week after being bitten by a snouted cobra; vomiting, delirious and unable to walk. Doctors could only treat him symptomatically as they could not find any snake anti-venom to give him. The man survived after hours of agony.

Although the NHLS claims to have “increased snakebite anti-venom production”,  all requests by Daily Maverick for a list of facilities where this has been distributed were ignored. None of SA’s major snakebite experts, despite having paid for large orders, has received any.

“We have made progress in producing and distributing larger quantities of snakebite anti-venom to health and veterinary facilities across the country since last week,” Gcukumana had insisted.

The NHLS had blamed the shortage on load shedding and malfunctioning machinery.

“We installed a backup power unit, as previously stated, to meet the energy demands of our manufacturing process. The NHLS management continues to monitor the situation and will take necessary steps depending on need.”

National Health Department spokesperson Foster Mohale said they had noted the concerns raised about the shortage. “It is a much-needed and life-saving treatment. We are doing everything possible to ensure a sufficient supply of this treatment,” he added.

He said partial deliveries were being done “due to supply constraints” and hospitals were prioritised over veterinary wholesalers.

Last week, in an open letter, the National Snakebite Advisory Group appealed to Health Minister Dr Joe Phaahla to intervene and ensure funding and emergency upgrades of equipment and backup power supply at the South African Vaccine Producers’ (SAVP’s) plant.

The SAVP falls under the National Health Laboratory Service and manufactures snake anti-venom for the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.

“The inability and lack of expected delivery of anti-venom … poses a major health risk, despite the drug being an essential listed drug on the Essential Drug List. We … implore the minister to ensure procurement processes are effectively performed so that … backup generators and uninterrupted power supplies are made available and to ensure that reagents and other essential production items are procured to assist to enhance production, and the release of batches are made available in sufficient volume to restock the country,” said the letter.

Mark Marshall from Sandula Conservation in Nelson Mandela Bay said they had warned snake catchers to be extremely careful when retrieving snakes because there is likely to be no anti-venom to treat them if they get bitten.

“I was retrieving a big Cape cobra today and I must say I was stressing a little bit.”

He said he had received four phone calls in the past two weeks asking for anti-venom after dogs were bitten by snakes.

“The hospitals refused to give any to the vets, saying they have to keep everything they have for humans. I also couldn’t help. The dogs all died.”


Daily Maverick article – Frantic hunt for snake antivenom after man is bitten by cobra in Western Cape (Open access)


See more from MedicalBrief archives:


Urgent plea to Phaahla to resolve snake anti-venom crisis


Snakebite: ‘The world’s biggest hidden health crisis’


Snakebite anti-venom stocks dwindle to ‘almost nothing’






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