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South African Vets Short on Snake Antidote

FILE: This undated photo shows a cobra snake hidden in a can in the mail in Los Angeles. More than one in five species of reptiles worldwide, including the king cobra, are threatened with extinction, according to a new assessment published April 27, 2022, in the journal Nature.

JOHANNESBURG — Zarza, a much-loved Staffordshire terrier, ended up at a South African animal hospital with a bite from a Mozambique spitting cobra on her snout. The snake's powerful venom can stop breathing, but normally the bites are treatable with an antidote that's now scarce.

The problem, say South African veterinarians, is that they currently have virtually no vials of the cobra antiserum left.

"We've been out of antivenom for quite some months now," said Dean de Kock, a vet at the Valley Farm Animal Hospital in Pretoria, where Zarza was treated but eventually died.

Vets and snake experts say the shortage started getting serious towards the end of last year - though the authorities are denying there is a problem.

"Snakebite antivenom is available in the country," the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS), a government body in charge of antidote production, told AFP.

Experts in the field disagree.

In April, a group of snakebite treatment specialists pleaded with the health minister over what they described as "a major health risk."

While the supply problems may be easing in some quarters, vets say they are still struggling.

Hospitals treating humans get priority when any new doses come available, said Johan Marais, a herpetologist - specialist in reptiles and amphibians - who heads the African Snakebite Institute.

"At the moment, if you're a veterinarian, you cannot get antivenom," said Marais, 65.

He said he receives up to a dozen calls a day from desperate animal doctors and dog owners looking for antidotes.

"If your dog gets a serious snakebite today, there's a likelihood it's going to die," Marais said.

Alan Kloeck, of the South African Veterinary Association, confirmed Marais's remarks, describing a "countrywide shortage" with vets unable to get their hands on the antiserum they needed.

South Africa is home to about 160 species of snakes, many of them poisonous.

South African Vaccine Producers - a NHLS subsidiary and the only antivenom maker in the country - produces two antidotes.

One can treat bites from 10 snakes including the cape cobra, the puff adder and the green mamba, while another is for relatively rare boomslang bites.

Last week, NHLS said it had increased manufacturing in recent months.

Since January, it said, it had delivered antivenom to more than 230 institutions, including hospitals and veterinary clinics, fulfilling all orders apart from "a small backlog" affecting a provincial depot.

But de Kock, whose veterinary practice is in a different province, has not received any shipments since December. For a while, they were using expired doses from other hospitals, but these too have dried up.

"We have used the last vial on Sunday evening," he said last week.

Over the past three months, the hospital treated 25 dogs for snakebites.

Of the 16 who could get expired antivenom, only one did not survive, while six of the nine who could not get doses died.

Zarza was among them, dying in May after a two-day struggle on a ventilator.

"It's tough," said de Kock, 53. "You're doing everything you can but the vital thing that you actually need is the antivenom, and you don't have that."