In some towns in northern Nigeria, it is estimated that hundreds of people die each year from snakebites. Health officials blame the deaths on the large variety of snakes and lack of modern facilities in the area. They are preparing to build a hospital that will exclusively treat snakebites.
Snakebite victims in northern Nigeria are usually the people who have the least access to health care - subsistence farmers in remote villages. Many of these villages have no roads, and during the rainy season, some are completely cut off from the outside world as ravines fill with water.
And it’s the rainy season when the snakes come out, said Rhoda Bassey, Rotary International’s representative from the Snake Heaven Project - an organization that is working to make snakebite treatment more available in northern Nigeria.
“During the dry season, at that time the snakes go hiding," Bassey said. "But once the first rain comes they start coming out and during the rainy season its very bad.”
As many as 16 victims from across northern Nigeria arrive daily at a Gombe state hospital to get free anti-venom during the rainy season, about eight months a year, according to Bassey. Many others, she said, die in their villages or on the way to the hospital.
Normally a single dose of anti-venom costs about $125. And some people need more than one dose to survive. But the hospital, with only 20 beds, is not nearly big enough for all the victims, Bassey said.
“They can get the treatment anywhere but this is the only clinic that gives free. It was started by missionaries, but when the missionaries left 30 years back they handed it over to the government and it was a 20-bedded ward," she said. "And like I told you, by the time we came into it they still had that 20-bedded. Not even one bed added to it.”
The Snake Heaven Project is an effort to expand the hospital and the government has purchased and cleared the land to build a 122-bed ward exclusively for snakebite patients.
According to he World Health Organization, as many as 94,000 people die worldwide from snakebites
every year, mostly in rural areas of Africa and Asia. Besides killing victims, it says, snakebites can cause permanent physical and psychological damage.