In Nigeria’s Snake Belt the new initiative is welcome but will not come anything like soon enough for many.
May and June are peak season for the clinic, when the start of the farming season leads to labourers getting bitten as they clear areas of grassland and bush. Sometimes a dozen patients arrive every day, some even from over the border in neighbouring Cameroon, nearly 200 miles away.
Those who reach the clinic are treated with basic anti-venoms, which are offered free of charge and will usually see recovery within a few days. Yet many victims choose to remain at home, putting their faith in traditional remedies such as rubbing the wound with bark, or slashing it open in a hopeless bid to “bleed out” the poison.
One such case is Emmanuel Samuel, 12, who was bitten on the foot by a carpet viper four nights ago while out playing. The creature clung on his foot with its fangs, meaning it probably delivered a full dose of venom, but for the first 12 hours, his grandmother treated him by feeding him garlic paste.
“Luckily a member of our own staff happens to live in his village, and when they found out they told him to come here straight away,” said Dr Muhammad, as he examines Emmanuel’s leg. Although the swelling has subsided, it is covered in blisters and lesions, while the remaining skin is shiny and fragile like clingfilm.
“By the time he got here, he was hardly able to speak,” Dr Muhammad adds. “If he’d stayed at home, he would have died.”
In 2017, the Kaltungo clinic treated some 4,400 patients, around one per cent of whom died, said Professor Abdulrazaq Habib, another medic at the clinic.
Occasionally, there are also logistical problems with the supply of antivenom. Dr Muhummad said that a shortage over a fortnight last autumn let to several patients being turned away, some of whom he presumes subsequently died.
Locals could also do with more education on the risks of using traditional medicine: “We tell them that the herbal cures are useless, but people do not always listen,” he says.
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