SNAKEBITE
American Survival Guide|February 2020
ANECDOTES, FACTS AND ADVICE FOR BEING SAFE AROUND VENOMOUS SNAKES
AL J. VENTER
We have had a plethora of medical alarms and concerns in the United States this past year, including measles, plague-infested fleas, devastating new STD infections and several mosquito-borne illnesses. Yet, curiously, still low as priorities go in the U.S. this past summer has been snakebites. By many accounts, these are exponentially increasing and at a steady rate. The Wall Street Journal devoted a major story to that issue on August 5, 2019. It highlighted reports that rapid urbanization and heavy rains had led to more snake attacks in the Carolinas and Georgia, copperheads especially. These reports are borne out by information provided by various health authorities, almost all of which maintain that there have been 10 percent more snakebites in 2019 than 2018 and the majority blamed on urban areas that tend to encroach on “traditional snake country.” Effectively, this forces the reptiles to find new habitats, often in leafy-covered domestic back gardens.

SNAKEBITES ON THE RISE

Still more worrying was one report from Texas that stated that snakebites in Texas were a quarter more prevalent than five years ago, the majority of strikes coming from rattlesnakes.

That said, it is not a nationwide problem, not yet anyway, with most Southeastern states as well as Texas featuring most prominently in the snakebite stakes.

The single biggest problem apparently is that many of the more dangerous snakes are able to camouflage themselves very effectively. If someone, a child especially, is not specifically aware of the danger of, for example what a copperhead with its brown or tan triangular markings actually looks like in the brush, the snakes can and often will strike without warning.

With rattlers, most potential victims usually get a sounding from their namesake rattle beforehand: that is not so with most of the more venomous serpents.

What is important is to be aware that, while not the longest, the most venomous snake in North America is the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, found in Florida, North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The venom is injected through what feels like two hot hypodermic needles.

If you get bit, you can expect to experience bleeding, a ton of pain, and possibly death. Its cousin, the western diamondback rattlesnake is one of the most famous in North America, so common in the American Southwest that it has even found its way onto the logo of Arizona’s Major League Baseball team.

What is extremely important is to realize that snakes are not naturally aggressive. There are very few of these creatures that will not flee if confronted by a human. Most strike only when cornered or when placed in a position where the only way out is to lunge in an attack. Most times, they are stood on before they react.

I recall travelling in East Africa when I was younger and spending months along some of Kenya’s famous beaches, which are also notorious for the number of mambas that live there. There are so many of these venomous beasts, in fact, that some villages devote good time to capturing them and then selling them to laboratories where the snakes are milked for their venom: trappers are paid by the foot-length.

At the time I was broke and spent many a night sleeping out on the beaches in the open. More often than not I would be awakened by snakes rustling in the undergrowth near to where I was stretched out but they were never aggressive. They kind of got used to my presence and I to them, though I doubt whether I would like to repeat the experience today. I would not have done that had I been aware at the time that a single black mamba has enough venom in it to kill 10 people and always bites multiple times. As a result, it injects higher doses of venom than most other poisonous snakes.

SNAKEBITE FACTS

Globally, more than 5 million snakebites occur each year, resulting in roughly 2 million to 2.5 million cases of envenomings (poisoning from snakebites).

Few people heading out into Third World countries on vacation — especially if they are hiking — are aware that there are between 80,000 and 140,000 deaths and around three times as many amputations and other permanent disabilities suffered each year as a result of snakebites.

Most of these occur in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In Asia, up to 2 million people are envenomed by snakes each year, while in Africa there are an estimated 435,000 to 580,000 snakebites annually that need treatment. With the increased deployment of American military forces in some of the trouble spots in North and Central Africa, this issue is now getting serious attention in the U.S.

For the record, though, envenoming affects women, children and farmers in poor rural communities in low- and middle-income countries much more than in First World countries. The highest burden occurs where health systems are weakest and medical resources sparse.

Bites by venomous snakes can cause acute medical emergencies involving severe paralysis that may prevent breathing, or bites can cause bleeding disorders that can lead to fatal hemorrhaging. Otherwise, this might result in irreversible kidney failure and severe local tissue destruction that can cause permanent disability and limb amputation.

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