RECENTLY, the news media carried the report of a small child in the North West District who had died from a scorpion bite. Several people die each year from bites by venomous snakes but such deaths are rarely reported in the media. Some statistics have however been kept by the Health Authorities of patients who were treated for snake bites and deaths from such bites. For instance, in the 5-year period (2010 – 2014), 1,190 cases of snakebite patients were recorded of which 95 had died. The number of persons who had suffered snake bites countrywide is believed to be much greater and the number of deaths is also believed to be higher than 18 per year. since a good proportion of snakebite victims are unable to access hospital facilities.
Guyana’s Economy still largely depends on agriculture, forestry and mining and snakes are common in the sugar and rice fields and food farms. The loggers in the forests are always open to the risk of being attacked by venomous snakes and so are those engaged in mining for gold and diamonds. In other words, a good proportion of the country’s workforce is each day open to the risk of being bitten by snakes.
In Georgetown, people are less aware of the danger of snake bites since the City is snake-free. This was not always so. Two or three generations ago, in the 1940s and 1950s, snakes, centipedes and scorpions were common in the City and it was a custom to ascertain that no centipedes or scorpions had secreted themselves in one’s shoes before putting them on.
Guyana is known to be home to a wide variety of snakes but the five most known and deadly are the Bushmaster, the Labaria and Carpet Labaria which are found in most parts of the country, especially in the moist coastal plains, the rain forests and the arid grasslands; the other two types are the Rupununi Rattler mostly found in the savannahs and the Coral Snake which is found everywhere since it moves around to find its food supply.
The snake risk has been addressed in various ways. In the first place, there was medication. A generation or two ago, the most common treatments were folk remedies such as trying to suck the venom from the bite or widening the wound so that blood and venom could be squeezed out. Indian indentured immigrants had brought many treatments used in India such as the snake stone and various herbs but by the beginning of the 20th century all these self-help treatments were forgotten or fell into desuetude.
For many years, the medical profession has been using various anti-venom serums or other drugs imported from abroad. Of recent years, the Georgetown Public Hospital has acquired an anti-venom treatment from Costa Rica which is reported to be an effective treatment for snake bites. The Hospital has also built up skills to deal with complications such as allergic/anaphylactic reactions as side effects of the treatment. The relevant staff from the Regional and District Hospitals are accorded training by the Accident and Emergency Unit of the Georgetown Public Hospital to render immediate help to patients in the Regions.
Farms, forested areas, woodlands, grasslands and the newly developed housing schemes are high-risk areas for snakes. People who live or work in such areas are recommended to do many things to protect themselves: They should eliminate dumping and heaping up of vegetation waste such as branches, cuttings, weeds, coconut shells since such dumps and heaps provide breeding grounds for snakes.
In their yards and around their habitations they should remove all excess and overgrown vegetation since such vegetation in the high-risk areas not only attract snakes but could also accommodate breeding areas for them. Throwing about food or food materials carelessly on the ground or in drains attract both rats and snakes. Persons who live or work in these high-risk areas should ensure that they have at hand personal protective equipment such as sturdy long boots, sharp cutlasses, appropriate heavy sticks and even shotguns.
Teachers in the schools and social workers in the countryside and other high-risk areas should be educated as to the habits of snakes, what should be done on encountering them and precautions to be taken against them. Some elementary first-aid treatment should also be taught to them. Such “training” should take an hour or two and could be illustrated with videotapes.
In all civilisations, snakes have been regarded ambiguously – either as an enemy to be killed on sight or with some protective reverence as, for instance, the snake emblem the medical profession uses which is associated with the Greco-Roman God Apolo. Modern Man, influenced by Ecology, know that snakes should not be killed except they are a threat or nuisance