Sola SHITTU, Gombe
Admitting and treating snakebite patients at the Snakebite Treatment and Research Centre of the General Hospital in Kaltungo, Gombe State is a phenomenon that residents of the community as well as those of Biliri, Balanga and other mountainous settlements in Gombe State have had to live with for decades.
But there was something extraordinary about a patient that was rushed to the emergency unit of the centre recently. The doctor on duty, identified as Dr. Agom Ibrahim, was shocked to find that the patient, a victim of snakebite, was heavily pregnant and had fallen into labour at the time she was rushed in.
Sarah had been brought in from the farm by her relatives after she was bitten by a species of snake known as carpet viper, which is reputed as the most dangerous of the three poisonous species of snakes that are common in the area.
“Sarah went into labour simultaneously as she was bleeding from the snakebite, and that meant additional loss of blood,” explained Ibrahim.
The hospital was naturally thrown into panic, prompting the director of the centre, Dr Mohammed Suleiman, to be called to the emergency unit as the battle to save the lives of both the mother and the unborn baby began. Although the area is notorious for harbouring three species of poisonous snakes, namely carpet viper, cobra and pofadder, the carpet viper is regarded as the one with the deadliest bite.
It is believed that this species of snake hot tempered and can strike even without being provoked, and its bite usually results in heavy bleeding and loss of blood on the part of the victim. Unfortunately, it was this most deadly species that bit Sarah. Thus, Agom’s first task was to control Sarah’s loss of blood to save her life and deliver her of the baby.
Dr. Suleiman said: “It was a tough battle and we had little or no time to act because the poison was spreading very fast around her body.”
By the time Sarah was delivered of her baby, the doctors found that she had lost a lot of blood from both the snakebite and the process of child birth. “She had no money to buy blood and it was already late in the night, yet we had to save the life of the mother,” said Agom as he relived the experience.
But just as everyone was wondering what to do, Suleiman, the Director of the Centre, came to the rescue by calling some of the hospital’s workers to donate blood to Sarah. They responded positively and her condition was stabilised, following which the hospital commenced her treatment for snakebite.
“She received six pints of blood and six vials of anti-snake venom before we were able to stabilise her,” said Suleiman who gladly displayed the picture of the baby on his mobile phone.
While the incident involving Sarah was a rare incident in the hospital, snakebite is a daily occurrence, especially during planting and harvesting seasons. It is nothing unusual in the hospital to find snakebite patients who are less than a year old.
Our correspondent’s first visit to the hospital revealed 11 patients on treatment for snakebite. The following day, four fresh victims of snakebite had reported at the centre between 9 am and 12 pm. “Our daily average record of patients is 10, especially during planting and harvesting seasons and during the heat periods,” said Suleiman.
The prevalence of snakes and snakebites in the area is attributed to the mountainous terrain which provides habitation for snakes and the rodents that serve as food for them. Farmers, however, frequently come in contact with them and suffer snakebites in the process.
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Jeremiah Daniel, one of the snakebite patients in the hospital, described the agony that comes with snakebite as terrible. Daniel, who was brought to the hospital unconscious, said he had spent five days trying to recover from the attack. He had lost a lot of blood before he was rushed to the hospital, consequently, he had to receive three pints of blood before his condition could stabilise.
Lying on the hospital bed and looking frail, he recalled that he was going to the farm on the day the incident occurred.
“I was going to the farm when a snake emerged from nowhere and bit me. Before I knew it, I had started feeling unconscious. That was how I was rushed here,” he said.
Another victim, Adamu Ado, who was rushed to the emergency ward, said he was clearing weeds on the farm when a snake struck.
But the presence of snakes is not limited to the farms or the mountainous parts of Gombe. The state’s Commissioner for Health, Dr Hammed Gana, recalled how he narrowly escaped snakebite twice in one day in the premises of his house in Gombe.
He said: “It was in the morning on one weekend and I was trying to wet the flowers. I noticed a movement as I stretched my hand under the flowers and quickly withdrew my hand. As I looked carefully, behold, it was a carpet viper. I quickly picked a stick and killed it.
“On the same day, while I was trying to get water from the tap, I noticed another snake between my legs. I jumped like I had never done before and again killed it with a stick. Our people are highly vulnerable to snakebites.”
Yet most painful for Gana was the death of a young man who was bitten by a carpet viper near his farm in Gombe South. “The young man died within one hour while he was on the way to the hospital. It was so sad,” he said.
Centre in dire need of funds
However, despite becoming a unit in Kaltungo General Hospital since 1940 and its subsequent upgrade to a centre in 2019, access to funds remains a major constraint for Kaltungo Snakebite Treatment and Research Centre.
“The patients are mostly people without voice, who cannot afford to pay for even a vial of anti-snake venom. So the state government has been the one solely bearing the burden of their treatments,” said Gana.
According to him, a vial of anti-snake venom costs as much as N40,000, and to treat a patient fully requires a minimum of three vials, amounting to N120,000.
He recalled that Governor Inuwa Yahaya have had to make emergency provision of N5 million for the purchase of the anti-snake venom produced only in one Latin American country, Costa Rica.
“We can also get them from India, but the Indian one is not as effective as the Latin America one which gives us results within one week,” he said.
“The Snakebite Treatment and Research Centre is the only one serving the six North East states of Gombe, Bauchi, Taraba, Adamawa and Borno.
“We also used to have patients from other parts of the country like Plateau and Benue states. But because of proximity, our patients are mostly from the six North East states.”
Suleiman said Taraba State alone accounts for more than 40 per cent of patients in the 150-bed hospital with just three wards for male, female and paediatric patients.
He said: “The issue of snakebite is a huge one in Gombe State because a great portion of our state is actually within that belt and we do have quite a number of incidents of snakebites literally across all the eleven local government areas of the state.
“As a result of that, previous governments thought it was very necessary that we have such a specialised hospital with facilities that take care of snakebites. But more prominently is the axis of Biliri, Kaltungo and Balanga; those hilly and mountainous areas of the state where our people, especially the farmers and rural dwellers do come into close contact with reptiles.
“Ultimately, the hospital was created initially from a department of snakebites in the general hospital at Kaltungo to a specialised treatment and research centre, doing research around different species of the snakes that we have in the areas.
“Recently, we ran short of the anti-snake venom. The state government has been doing everything possible to make sure that we have adequate stock of the anti-snake venom, but, of course, the uptake is quite high, especially at the peak of the season, when farmers are on the farm.
“Now we are in the rainy season and farmers are on the farm. And you know the processes that are involved in natural farming. Farmers come in contact with them as they come out of their holes looking for food,” said the commissioner.
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The situation is further compounded by snakebite victims who rush to traditional healers for herbal treatment. While they do succeed at times, the victims see no improvement in most cases and then rush to the hospital. “But by then, it might be too late. Some come one or two weeks after the snakebite. The lucky ones do survive it though,” said Suleiman.
On the viability of the option of herbal medicine for snakebite treatment, Suleiman said: “Even the traditional snakebite medicine healers, when snakes bite them, they rush to the hospital. But they beg us not to let the people know.
“You see the problem with herbal medicine is that snakebite victims only respond to medicine produced from the actual venom of the type of snake that has bitten them. So the anti-venom is generated from the venom of the snake, and once it is given, it clears the venom from the body of the victim.
“That is why traditional medicines have not been effective for persons that we have established that there is venom in their system.
“For those who say traditional medicines work, sometimes the snake would bite but do not inject venom into the person’s body. And when they go to traditional healers and get healed, they do not know that it is not all snakebites that has venom injected into the body of the victim.”