Boomslang. Photo William Warby/ Wikimeida Commons
William Warby
  • The South African Vaccine Producers, part of the National Health Laboratory Service, is the only manufacturer of snake antivenom in the country, making about 15,000 ampoules a year
  • The country is home to numerous venomous snakes; venom from snake bites can cause local tissue damage, paralysis, or even death
  • Snake antivenoms are produced in horses, because they can produce antibodies that neutralise the venom

In Sandringham, Johannesburg, horses are saving people’s lives. Sandringham is home to the South African Vaccine Producers, a subsidiary of the National Health Laboratory Service – which is the only producer of snake antivenom in the country.

The SAVP makes about 15,000 ampoules of snake antivenom a year, says Megan Saffer, managing director of the antivenom unit of the SAVP.

The World Health Organisation estimates that more than 5-million people are bitten by snakes each year, and between 81,000 and 138,000 people die each year due to snake bites, with three times as many amputations. However, in Sub-Saharan Africa, fewer than 2% of snake bites are treated with antivenom. Depending on the snake and amount of venom it injects into its bite, a snake bite could cause tissue damage, paralysis or even death.

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South Africa is home to numerous venomous snakes, and the SAVP has developed a number of products to neutralise some of their venom. These include the bites of rinkhals, the black mamba, and the Mozambique spitting cobra. It is also the only the monovalent antivenom that is effective against the bite of a Boomslang.

The National Health Laboratory Service, which was then known as the South African Institute of Medical Research, first started producing anti-venoms in 1928, specifically for the Cape Cobra and Puff Adder.

Its antivenoms are produced in horses, says Saffer. “The horses are immunised with the different venoms,” she explains. “The plasma from the horses is then processed and purified resulting in the antivenom.”

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However, snake antivenom is not the SAVP’s only antidote: It produces spider antivenom (specifically against the venom of a black widow spider), which it has been doing since 1949. In the 1940s, following a request from the what-was-then the Union Defence Medical Services, it also began producing an antivenom for the scorpion, Parabuthus transvaalicus.

Asked if they were working on any new antivenoms, Saffer says that they would look into new products if the need arose.

An earlier version of this story used venom and poison interchangeably, although venom is a toxic that is injected whereas poison is a toxin that is ingested. The story now reflects this.

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