Locals believe that snakebites are due to witchcraft

Alice Nzai’s right leg was amputated following a snakebite when she was 13 years. PHOTO | LEOPOLD OBI | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Dry bite incidences occur when the snake was not prepared to inject its venom.

  • Ms Nzai, a mother of two, was not the last person in Watamu Village, Kilifi County, to be bitten by the noxious vipers.

  • The two are among the 68 percent of Kenyans who visit traditional medicine men when bitten by snakes.

Venomous snake bites can be tragic, resulting in paralysis at times, or permanent disability and in extreme cases, death.

Over the years, cases of venomous snakebites have been on the rise across the country.

Alice Katana Nzai, a snakebite survivor, was on her way home one evening when she accidentally stepped on a snake, which bite her.


She was only 13 at the time Now is her late 40’s, Alice remembers thinking that she was going to die as she was rushed to a nearby traditional medicine man, a common reaction of many rural folk here when attacked by snakes.

The traditional medicine however failed miserably, forcing her family to rush her to hospital.

By the time she got to hospital, it was too late, forcing the doctors to amputate her right leg to save her life. Normally, those who survive after treatment by traditional healers, according to experts, are either bitten my non-venomous snakes or have been given a dry bite, a non-venomous bite. Dry bite incidences occur when the snake was not prepared to inject its venom.

Ms Nzai, a mother of two, was not the last person in Watamu Village, Kilifi County, to be bitten by the noxious vipers.


Two months ago, Juma Charo, a resident, was attacked by a greyish snake which is known as fira (spitting cobra) in the local Mijikenda dialect. In Watamu where there are at least four snake farms and parks, residents never walk without a torch at night.

“That evening I was walking home when I stepped on a snake - I had no torch,” says Charo.

Like Ms Nzai, Charo was also first taken to a traditional medicine man before being rushed to the nearby dispensary in Timboni Township where he was injected with an antivenin jab.

The two are among the 68 percent of Kenyans who visit traditional medicine men when bitten by snakes. Many locals believe that snakebites are a result of witchcraft, rather than accidents, which only traditional healers can cure.


Every year, about 5.4 million people are bitten by snakes, up to 2.7 million of whom are envenomed, resulting to over 100,000 people according to World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates.

Globally, between 80,000 to 140,000 people die every year due to snake envenoming, according to World Health Organisation (WHO).

While another 400,000 are left nursing life-long injuries, amputation and psychological trauma.

Yet, the global response to this tragic public health issue has been, until very recently, quite disappointing. Two years ago, WHO agreed to list snakebite envenoming among the neglected tropical disease to give it deserving attention as far as research and funding is concerned.


Also exacerbating snakebite fatalities is the global shortage of anti-venom especially in rural parts of the continent where health care facilities are far and scarce. In 2010, anti-venom manufacturers Sanofi Pasteur halted production of its FAV-Afrique anti-venom for African snakes, saying the business was not profitable, to the bane of African countries.

The exit of the company meant that many African countries had to rely on non-effective anti-venoms manufactured from non-African snakes, which could not treat bites from the local snakes, resulting into a treatment crisis.

Prof Mike Turner, director of science at Welcome Trust, a biomedical research foundation, points out that the global burden of death and disability due to snakebites is comparable to cervical or prostate cancer.

In Kenya, there are several regions considered snakebite hotspots particularly the arid and semi-arid counties, namely Baringo, Kilifi, Kitui, Turkana, Mandera, and Wajir, which are battling water scarcity.


Because some of these areas are so expansive and remote, access of timely healthcare services during such emergencies are not guaranteed, resulting to more casualties.

In 2017, about 35,000 snakebite cases were reported in the country, according to the Ministry of Health’s Neglected Tropical Diseases department (NTD) while in 2015 and 2016, reported cases stood at 5,000 and 15,000 respectively.

The rising figure, according to NTD is due to improved data collection.

Dr Sultan Matendechero, the Ministry of Health’s Neglected Tropical Diseases department head, says the numbers could be higher as some cases are unreported. While snakebites are curable, large number of victims are unable to access effective treatment either due to prohibitive costs of the antivenin vile or because the drugs are inadequate.

“A single vial costs up to Sh30, 000 yet a patient can require even more. The government’s subsidy has however made it affordable at around Sh3, 600,” he says adding that affected counties can even subsidise it further to make the drug affordable for their people.

The ministry says it is stocking anti-venoms in areas considered snakebite hotspots to meet the demand for the services.

“Our biggest concern in the treatment of snakebites is that there are people who sneak in wrong anti-venin. So far we have registered two antivenins which are very effective,” noted Dr Matendechero.


The snakes themselves are in danger of extinction due to poaching and illegal trade. It is feared that two rare snake species only found in Kenya could be no more due to poaching.

Right: Herpetologists at the National Museums of Kenya say that poachers are taking advantage of the fact that many locals fear snakes to smuggle the reptiles from the wild. The snake species under threat include Mt Kenya bush viper and the Kenya horned viper, which are believed to be smuggled to Europe and The Americas, where they are sold as pets.