Snakes and Snakebite

It is often said that should you encounter a snake; the best course of action is to stand perfectly still. I will not be comfortable to stand half a meter from a hooded cobra or a Black Mamba with its head raised and the black inner lining of the mouth visible.  My advice is to back off five paces immediately and once you are five meters away, the chance of getting bitten is close on zero. You will also be well out of range for spitting snakes as the maximum distance a spitting snake can eject its venom is less than 3 m.

While many people are bitten by Puff Adders, research has shown that most such bites happen at night when snakes on the move are accidentally trodden on. Bites from Puff Adders during the day are quite rare and although the venom of the Puff Adder is potently cytotoxic, resulting in severe pain, swelling and tissue damage, fatalities are rare.

But there is one exception – the Mozambique Spitting Cobra. This snake is widespread from southern KwaZulu-Natal into Mozambique, eSwatini, Mpumalanga, northern Gauteng, Limpopo, Northwest Province, and further north. It is largely nocturnal but may also hunt during the day.

It is a ferocious feeder and actively hunts for rodents, toads, birds, their eggs, other snakes and just about anything else it can get hold of. It often accidentally ends up in homes, entering through open sliding doors or through the gap under an exit door. It continues hunting and if it finds a person in a bed it is known to slither onto the bed and bite the person. Such bites are often in the face, on the chest or on an arm or a hand. It is not a matter of the snake accidentally being rolled onto and we have seen many cases where that was certainly not the case. They smell a sleeping mammal and mistaking people for a meal. Many of the victims are babies who are often bitten in the face, sometimes even on an eye. The Zebra Cobra in Namibia and the Kraits in Asia share this bizarre behaviour.

The venom of the Mozambique Spitting Cobra is potently cytotoxic, causing pain, swelling and potentially severe tissue damage. It is quite slow in acting and although fatal bites are quite rare, the victims often have extensive tissue damage that requires surgery over several months.

The polyvalent antivenom that is produced by the South African Vaccine Producers is made from the venom of ten snake species including the Mozambique Spitting Cobra but seems to be quite ineffective at combatting tissue damage. Large quantities of polyvalent antivenom (around 10-12 vials) are required very soon after a bite. Otherwise, it is ineffective and a waste of a valuable resource.

The Mozambique Spitting Cobra averages around 1,2 m in ln length and reaches a maximum length of 1,8 m. Females lay up to 22 eggs in summer and the young measure 23-25 cm in length. It is a plain medium or dark brown colour overall with a salmon pink or mother-of pearl belly and has a few dark bars in the throat region that are prominent when it spreads a hood.

Bites from this snake can be prevented by keeping tents well sealed (most tents are insect proof) and installing mosquito doors onto all exit doors. Sleeping under a mosquito net will also be well worth considering. Gaps below exit doors need to be sealed and check your bed and sleeping bag before going to bed.

In the event of a bite there is no effective first aid – get the victim to the nearest hospital with a trauma unit as quickly as possible.

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