December 13, 2013
Bangkok snake farm marks centenary
Bangkok's Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute celebrated its centenary year this month, marking 100 years of snake anti-venom research and production. This highly important research centre was set up in 1913 to distribute both snake anti-venom and rabies vaccines, and now produces all of the anti-venom for Thailand as well as exporting the serums to other countries in Asia. In other words, if you are treated for a snake bite in Thailand, the anti-venom will have derived from one of these snakes.Thailand has over 60 varieties of venomous snakes and the centre cultivates anti-venom from the majority of these. Having watched the snake handling demonstration, quite a tourist attraction in Bangkok, I caught up with one of the vets at the research centre to find out a bit more about the institute and its work. "The most dangerous snake is the king cobra", she said. "However bites are pretty rare, and most people who are bitten in Thailand get bitten by the Malayan Pit Viper." Thailand relies heavily on tourism, but very few tourists are actually bitten by any sort of snake whilst in Thailand. "The vast majority of cases are farmers and people who work in rural areas such as in the rice paddies and rubber plantations. People have to get up to start work outside very early in the morning, and many people are bitten on the ankle because they don't have good footwear," she says. The Malayan Pit Viper is renowned for its bad temper and doesn't need much excuse to strike. "Whilst the bite may be extremely painful, it is often not life-threatening." The toxin from a pit viper is haemotoxic, rather than neurotoxic, meaning the venom attacks the red blood cells and disrupt your body's blood-clotting capability. Victims often fully recover if treated promptly, but sometimes limbs (or the use of) are lost if treatment is delayed. In the case of the King Cobra, venom is said to be neurotoxic. This means the venom attacks your nervous system which control your breathing and other muscular functions. The toxin is 'designed' to cause muscular and respiratory failure, making it easier for the snake to subdue its prey. Bites from king cobras are rare as its rain forest habitats have a low population density. However, many countries where cobras and other deadly snakes are native still lack any sort of anti-venom treatment and goes to show the importance of anti-venom distribution from centres like these. Malawi, for example, is home to a veritable hall of fame of the world's deadliest snakes, including the king cobra, boomslang and black mamba to name but a few, yet there is not a single drop of anti-venom in this poorest of countries. However, on a visit to a reserve in Malawi in 2013, I was facetiously advised that should I be bitten I would be best comforted to see out my final hours with a dram of my favorite whisky rather than attempt to find futile medical help. The institute has a comprehensive breeding program so that venom can continue to be harvested from the snakes year after year. This means they don't have to go to the effort of catching wild snakes. The anti-venom is produced using horses, which are injected with low doses of the venom to stimulate an immunity response. The antibodies can then be taken from the horse's blood and used to replicate the anti-venom.