Snakebit: Surviving the Black Mamba

In the action movie "Kill Bill" the lead character goes by a nickname, "Black Mamba." She's a killer: She strikes quickly and fatally — just like her namesake the black mamba snake, the most feared snake in Africa.

The mamba is found throughout most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and is incredibly fast, traveling at speeds up to 12 miles per hour. It's also large; the second largest snake in Africa, and aggressive and territorial, characteristics not usually attributed to snakes.

The black mamba actually isn't the most deadly snake on the continent; that honor belongs to the Puff Adder Viper, which is also the most common poisonous snake in Africa and has the most contact with humans.

But villagers and experts alike fear the intense pain and suffering the mamba inflicts on its victims. Its poison is neuro-toxic. Unlike most poisonous snakes where the venom travels slowly through the blood stream, allowing a victim time to get treatment and to isolate the poison using a tourniquet, the black mamba's poison goes straight for the nerves, attacking the central nervous system and shutting down major organs. Twenty minutes after being bitten you may be lose the ability to talk. After one hour you're probably comatose, and by six hours, without an antidote, you are dead.

A person will experience "pain, paralysis and then death within six hours," says Damaris Rotich, the curator for the snake park in Nairobi. "The kind of experience that the person goes through is really horrible."

A trained biologist, Rotich has studied the complex effects of snake bites on humans, including the black mamba.

Thousands Killed Each Year

In Kenya, Rotich says it's hard to keep official statistics of how many humans die of snake bites each year, but it's estimated that the number is in the tens of thousands. The problem became so severe that the Ministry of Health along with the World Health Organization launched a country-wide campaign five years ago to educate people about snake bites.

In rural villages where people are more likely to be bitten, Rotich says education was needed to make villagers understand that traditional, home remedies were not effective, particularly in the case of the black mamba.

"There are people who believe that mambas feed on cow milk so they actually go to cow sheds to actually suckle milk to treat the bite," she says. "But if one has been bitten and venom has been injected and no medical intervention, such as administering the anti-venom, is done quickly, for sure that person will die."

Snake anti-venom works much like a vaccine, says Dr. Mercy Njuguna, the marketing manager for Sanofi Pasteur, a French pharmaceutical company that manufactures snake anti-venom for primarily Africa.

"You need the snake to make the anti-venom" she says.

For years each type of snake had its own anti-venom, but health care workers often had problems identifying what type of snake had bitten a victim, leading to precious lag time between the bite and administering the serum, or worse administering the wrong one. In response pharmaceutical companies have developed an all-in-one anti-venom serum for the region.

The anti-venom now administered counteracts bites from Africa's 10 most poisonous snakes, including the mamba. "We have 10 anti-venoms in one," says Njuguna. "It saves time and lives."

But the process to make the anti-venom serum is a long and cumbersome one.

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