He milks snake venom to save lives

He milks snake venom to save lives
Published: 13 February 2018 (449 Views)
In the laboratory at his Marlborough home in Harare Ben Vermulen was trying to milk a huge Cape cobra by manoeuvring its razor sharp fangs through a rubber sheath on a plastic vial - the way he had done it thousands of times before.

This time the snake wriggled loose, sinking its fangs into his palm and injecting lethal venom.

The poison pulsed through Vermulen's veins.

Soon, he had no feeling in his arms or legs.

Although he survived the bite, his right index finger was so badly damaged that it had to be amputated.

This cobra attack was the ninth time Vermulen had been bitten by a venomous snake.

He has been hospitalised twice for life-threatening bites, but despite the constant danger posed by his hobby, Vermulen has repeatedly returned to laboratory to milk deadly snakes.

Milking snakes for venom is a highly risky endeavour pursued by very few people and it probably explains why Vermulen is the only Zimbabwean doing it.

The only two other known venom harvesters in Africa are found in South Africa and Kenya.

While most people run screaming from things that creep, crawl and can potentially kill you with all manner of venomous wrath — Vermulen is not such kind of person.

For 44 years, he has earned his living through harvesting venom from all kinds of snakes that creep into homes around Harare and in those 44 years, he has been bitten nine times by highly venomous snakes, yet he has never considered quitting despite the dangerous nature of his job.

But by risking his life, he could be helping save millions of lives being lost through many ailments which medical scientists believe can be cured by snake venom.

He, like other venom harvesters around the world, sees and feels power and beauty in those scales, claws and fangs that send chills down spines of many, and he respects the long evolutionary path that created these incredible creatures.

True, snakes must be feared and avoided, especially with recent revelations by the ministry of Health and Child Care that they killed five people in January alone and left 532 others hospitalised after bites.

Global statistics also show that about 100 000 people die every year all over the world after being bitten by venomous snakes.

Depending on the toxicity of the venom and how much venom is injected into the body, snakebites will cause tingling, muscle weakness, nausea swallowing difficulties, excess saliva and potentially fatal breathing problems.

To avoid getting killed, a snakebite victim must immediately go to a hospital for anti-venom treatment.

If the patient is brought in due time — and if the hospital has the corresponding anti-venom in stock — there's an almost 100 percent chance of survival.

This proves that snakes are not really as dangerous as they are perceived to be, especially given that the anti-venom is manufactured from the venom itself, which is primarily prepared by injecting it into horses.

This is the first and foremost reason why people like Vermulen are needed in society.

Yet, the making of anti-venom is just one of the 38 medical applications that venom can be used in; making snakes more of useful creatures to the health of humanity, and for Vermulen, Zimbabwe does not have enough snakes.

"In our African culture, we have a misnomer about snakes which had been brought on by our forefathers and the general consensus that every good snake is a dead snake.

"What I am trying to do is to educate people that snakes are here for a good reason and without them; we could be in great trouble," he says.

An independent research by the Daily News on Sunday appeared to suggest that indeed, without snakes, human life might be in great danger.

Snake venom is a highly-toxic secretion produced and stored in specialised salivary glands of snakes which constitutes a vast array of biologically-active compounds, such as enzymes, proteins, pep tides and low molecular weight compounds.

These substances target an immense number of receptors and membrane proteins as well as coagulation proteins with high affinity, selectivity and potency, and can serve as potential drugs or scaffolds for drug design, a recent study by National Natural Toxins Research Centre, USA found.

Similar studies also established that snake venom can actually be developed into medicines that can help cure some of the common killer diseases which such as diabetes, hypertension and even several types of cancers.

Leading biochemical scientists are in fact, trying to develop medicines for these diseases using snake venom as a key component.

"During the recent years, much attention has been given to understand the mechanism of action of complex venom proteins for the development of novel drugs and therapeutic agents to treat life-threatening diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, thrombosis, arthritis, microbial infections and hypertension etc.

"Further, snake venom components have found uses in the diagnosis of haemostatic disorders," said eminent local biochemist Christopher Chetsanga who is a professor of biochemistry at the University of Zimbabwe.

His views are substantiated by the snake expert Vermulen, who said: "In recent years, snake venom and its components has gathered enormous interest from researchers across the globe.

"Scientists over the past few decades have postulated that despite the harmful and life-threatening effects of snake venom, its component may provide highly specific research tools for the development of novel life-saving medicines and drugs against some common and life threatening diseases besides providing insight to basic coagulation process."

A glimpse into the life of a venom harvester would prove that this is a grisly job which requires the most courageous people to undertake, yet if life is to be saved, someone has to give their lives to save others.

- dailynews

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