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Fear grips villagers under seige from venomous snakes

By | September 23rd 2009

By Moses Njagih

Isaiah Kivanga shudders as he recalls what he terms the scariest encounter he has ever had in his life.

He breathes hard as he narrates: "The snake was so close to my face I did not know what to do. I looked at its raised head, which was puffed up ready to strike, and knew I had to do something or it would bite me again. I moved fast to hit its head with my palm, and that is when it struck again like lightning, biting my small finger."

He killed the snake but since that confrontation three months ago, Kivanga has been lying on a hospital bed, one leg swollen and heavily bandaged from foot to knee.

Misery written all over his wrinkled face, Kivanga, a former Riakanau Ward Councillor in Gachoka Constituency, Mbeere District, says the small ward at privately owned Mwea Medical Centre in Ngurubani has been his home since the cobra bit him. Kivanga is one of about 50 people bitten by snakes this year in an interior location of Mbeere District known as Muminji, a rocky semi-arid area listed by Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) as having one of the highest snake infestations in the country.

Isaiah Kivanga in a hospital bed recovering from a snake bite.

Some of the victims have had their limbs amputated while others, especially children, have died.

Those whose who managed to get treatment fast may escape having their limbs amputated but those, like Kivanga, who delay reaching hospital, may end up losing their body parts. His three toes and one finger have already been amputated while his leg, which has not healed, may also be dismembered.

Second bite

The cobra bit the 53-year-old man on his leg in his sleep on March 6. He woke up after it struck, put on the lights, then stared it at the foot of his bed before it struck him a second time.

"I was asleep when I felt a painful prick. I first thought it was a cat, since the pet used to accompany me and spend the night in the warm comfort of my bed," he says.

His wife and villagers administered first aid on him before a motorcycle taxi rushed him to Gategi Dispensary, where he received anti-venom and anti-tetanus jabs. But after three days, Kivanga says he felt pain, forcing him to seek further treatment at the Embu Provincial General Hospital.

At Embu, Kivanga says he had four toes and the bitten finger amputated since they were rotting.

However, he later sought treatment at the Mwea Medical Centre in May, when the situation deteriorated and the leg continued to swell. He has been at the facility since.

In the neighbouring Siakago Constituency, Mbiti Kanyoti, 29, had his right leg amputated after a cobra bit him.

Speaking from Kathanji in Muminji Location, Kanyoti says he was taken to Ishiara Hospital, but was informed the facility did not have anti-venom medication. He was later taken to Embu District Hospital where he was admitted for more than three months and had his leg amputated.

Wooden leg

Kanyoti had to improvise a wooden leg to aid him in walking.

Kivanga and Kanyoti are some of many Mbeere District residents who have fallen victim to what has now become a serious snake menace in the semi-arid area. During a two-hour survey in Muminji which has suffered the worst effects of the slithering reptiles, we encountered more than ten people who had been victims of snakebite.

Faith Njoka (her name means snake) who coincidentally was bitten by a snake in 1996, lost her five-year-old daughter Carolyne Wanyaga in May after helplessly trying to get medication following a bite.

Mbiti Kanyoti who had his leg amputated. [PHOTOS:GEORGE MULALA/STANDARD]

No anti-venom

The mother thought she was lucky when Mbeere DC John Chelimo arrived in the area, though for a different mission and without any means of transport to take the girl to another hospital, offered his official vehicle that ferried her to Ishiara Sub-District Hospital. But the facility had no anti-venom.

"She died at around midday as we rushed her to Siakago," recounts the mother, fighting back tears.

The Mbeere Medical Officer of Health Stephen Kaniaru admits that the life-saving anti-venom drugs are not available in dispensaries and health centres for lack of qualified personnel to administer them.

Dr Kaniaru says the drug is available at Siakago and Ishiara District hospitals and at Embu Provincial General Hospital.

"The administration of the drug requires an officer who is qualified to handle such cases," he says.

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