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Echis ocellatus (photo by Anders Johansson)

Echis ocellatus (photo by Anders Johansson)

A few weeks ago I wrote about Fav-Afrique, the superb anti-venin which is going off the market because market incentives do not properly address real human concerns.  The anti-venin is a cocktail which is meant to counter the venom of numerous different snakes from central and West Africa. In that post, I promised to write about some of these venomous reptiles, which I have so far failed to do.  When I was looking at the list, one name stood out because it was the most dangerous snake in Africa (in terms of the number of people killed by its venom), yet I did not recognize the name at all-the West African carpet viper (Echis ocellatus).  This husky viper, which is camouflaged with a chaotic ladder of dark bars and pale stipples, is apparently Africa’s most dangerous snake—one of the deadliest animals in the word in terms of human mortality and suffering—but I have never heard of it.  Have you?

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The West African carpet viper doesn’t even have a good page (in English) on Wikipedia.  It is hard to find out about the creature without turning to 19th century explorers or freaks who raise it for a hobby.  Most of the web articles I found about it were scary medical papers about failed attempts to come up with effective anti-venins for the viper’s venom.  Here is what we do know about this tubby killer. Echis ocellatus can be found from Mauritania in the north down along the Bight of Benin to Cameroon.  It ranges east into the Sahel as far as Chad, Niger, and the Central African Republic.  The snake is adept at surviving in dry scrubland on lizards and rodents. Females can lay immense clutches of up to sixty eggs!

Echis ocellatus (at least acfcording to the internet)

Echis ocellatus (at least acfcording to the internet)

That is all I could reliably find out, but we know that the animal is a viper—which provides us with a great deal of information.  Vipers are fearsome lurking predators capable of seeing infrared wavelength radiation (which means they can track prey in the dark based on body heat).  Some pit-vipers like American rattlesnakes are famous for warning intruders off—and apparently the carpet viper can rasp its saw-toothed scales together to make a warning sound, but this subtle warning often goes unheeded by firewood gatherers of the scrubland.  Based entirely on body count, Echis ocellatus must be an angry & short-tempered character (I have mercifully never met one—so my words are speculation).

There is more information about the venom of Echis ocellatus than there is data about the snake, but the information is frustratingly technical.  Suffice to say, the snake produces a formidable cytotoxin, a protein which is damaging to cells.  Bites from the viper are marked by terrible tissue necrosis and hemorrhage at the site of envenomation.  I’m really sorry—the main things I have found out from looking into this interesting but enigmatic animal is that: (1) The internet is still an imperfect information source about some really important things; (2) I need to read French to write about West Africa, and (3) do not mess with Echis ocellatus! Leave them be and tread with great caution in dust colored places of the Sahel!

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The Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) Africa's most infamous venomous snake

Sanofi Pasteur is a French biomedical corporation—the vaccination division of Sanofi-Aventis Group, the world’s third largest drug company. The company produces “Fav-Afrique” a highly effective snake antivenin cocktail used to treat bites from Sub-Saharan Africa’s ten most poisonous snakes…or I guess I should say they used to make Fav-Afrique.  Snake antivenin is difficult and expensive to produce: making Fav-Afrique involves keeping and milking extremely poisonous snakes and then giving this venom to large domestic mammals such as sheep and horses.  A course pf Fav-Afrique costs around $500.00—which is big money in Sub-Saharan Africa—and the production was already heavily subsidized by NGOs and governments.  Yet somehow the entire affair was not economically feasible for Sanofi Pasteur.   There are a limited number of fairly shelf-stable doses left, but the earliest anyone is going to make a comparable product is 2018.

This job looks hard

This job looks hard

Snakebites are not particularly deadly here in the United States where snakes kill maybe 2 people a year, however the reptiles of Southern Africa are more formidable…while medical and emergency infrastructure there is a lot poorer (and there are far more people who live closer to the ground) so an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 people a year die of snakebite in Sub-Saharan Africa.  That is a huge number—for comparison the 2014 Ebola outbreak which (rightly) scared the bejeezus out of everyone “only” killed 6,500 people.

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All of this makes me wonder anew about the way incentives work in the broader affairs of the world. I understand why medical companies don’t want to mess with a process which is dangerous and complicated yet provides little (or no) profit.  Would you want to do that? Pro-market adherents (who increasingly strike me as bastards) would probably argue that the price of a course of antivenin should be much much higher (which is the case here in America with our sky-high health care costs)…but who would then pay for it in Africa?  Should we not have antivenins—even though we know how to make very fine ones which could save many lives?

By the way, Médecins Sans Frontières is a good organization

By the way, Médecins Sans Frontières is a good organization

It seems likely that powerful NGOs like the Gates Foundation and Médecins Sans Frontières will step in and take over Fav-Afrique–once they build an organization to master the complicated process of producing it.  Perhaps the entire flurry of media attention (like this article) is a useless kerfluffle designed to get frightened people to read articles…but I don’t feel like it is.  I feel like this whole error begs larger questions of how our system works and doesn’t work.   I don’t have any answers to macro-scale resource allocation questions, but I can see the invisible hand of the market trembling and doing dastardly and stupid things and it bothers me.

Tanzanian Puff Adder (Bitis arietans)

Tanzanian Puff Adder (Bitis arietans)

Of course all of this also begs question about what these ten super-poisonous African snakes are and where and how they live. I can answer questions about these amazing and formidable mambas, vipers, cobras, and puff adders!  I will be writing more about them in weeks to come…so even this poisonous cloud has a scaly silver lining.

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