A Kenyan research centre is working to develop the first snake antivenom in East Africa and stop unnecessary deaths dead on its tracks

A Kenyan research centre is working to develop the first snake antivenom in East Africa and stop unnecessary deaths dead on its tracks. (kenyageographic)
  • In Kenya, it is estimated that between 15 and 25 people lose their lives every day to snake bites.
  • This coupled with a chronically underfunded health system with no antivenom in stock getting bitten is akin to a death sentence.
  •  The Kenya Snakebite Research and Intervention Centre (KSRIC), is working to change all that.

More than 70,000 people are bitten by snakes in East Africa each year and out of this hundreds succumb to the venom.

In Kenya, it is estimated that between 15 and 25 people lose their lives every day to snake bites while more than 100 others have their limbs amputated, causing them permanent disability.

As climate change and deforestation continues to unfold, pushing snakes out of their natural habitats into populated areas the problem can only get worse. 

Already Kenyan residents residing in arid and semi-arid areas where snakes are found in abundance are feeling the heat. The snake bite menace is prevalent in Baringo, Kitui, Kilifi, Wajir, Garissa, Machakos, Marsabit, Isiolo, Makindu, Mwingi, and Taveta as the snakes slither into homestead to seek water and shelter.

Caught between a rock and a hard place

Kenya is home to some of the most deadly snakes in the continent including Black Mamba, Puff Adder, Boomslang, African Rock Python and 4 Cobra species, the Black Necked Spitting Cobra, the Red Spitting Cobra, Egyptian and Forest Cobra to mention but just a few.

This coupled with a chronically underfunded health system with no antivenom in stock and health centers located in far off areas from the nearest village, getting bitten in these areas is akin to a death sentence.

This sorry picture may, however, all be a distant memory soon if everything goes to plan.

Kenyan Researchers to the rescue

The Kenya Snakebite Research and Intervention Centre (KSRIC), partly funded by the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, is working to produce East Africa’s first antivenom and have it on the market within five years.

More so the anti venom will be affordable, it will be about a third that of an imported product, often priced at about $100 ensuring even Kenyans of humble means can afford the live saving jab.

“Up to (now), no one has produced any kind of antivenom in Kenya,” said senior snake handler Geoffrey Maranga Kepha.

How they intend to do it

Currently, nearly 100 snakes live at the research centre in a forest on the outskirts of Nairobi.

Researchers there extract venom and study it before injecting small amounts into donor animals, such as sheep, which then produce antibodies to be harvested and purified into antivenom.

According to the research centre, at the moment there are only two effective antivenoms available in Kenya, from India and Mexico.

Vaccine maker Sanofi Pasteur, part of French drugmaker Sanofi-Aventis, stopped producing antivenom for African snakes in 2010 because low demand and competition from a cheaper supplier made it unprofitable.

Sanofi wants to share its knowledge with partners who could handle production, the company told Reuters in a statement.

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