Snakebites an Under-Reported but Deadly Problem in Cambodia

In the ponds and rice paddies of the Cambodian countryside, trying to catch frogs can be deadly.

Along Cambodia’s rivers, floodlands and lowlands live millions of venomous snakes, 10 species of which can be lethal if you disturb their slumber.

Last week, a 13-year-old teenager from Kompong Chhnang province’s Boribor district became the 14th recorded victim of a snakebite this year, local police said—though accurate figures remain hard to come by since many snakebite victims do not seek treatment at hospitals.

“The boy and his friend went to catch frogs in the evening. He didn’t look carefully, stepped on a snake and collapsed” after a viper bit him, Anh Chanh commune police chief Chum Vey said.

The teenager was treated with anti-venom provided to the district hospital by the provincial hospital, and survived the snakebite.

Fishermen, Mr. Vey said, are bitten frequently, as well as farmers who lack the means to buy proper shoes that could protect them from snakes with smaller fangs.

The Siem Reap referral hospital treated more than 10 people for snakebites between June and October this year, while the Pursat provincial referral hospital said that 12 people sought life-saving anti-venom in the past two months. In Banteay Meanchey province, about 300 cases of snakebites were reported this year, said Dr. Keo Sophaktra, director of the provincial health department.

“Four or five people reportedly died by snakebites this year because they tried to find a traditional healer before they went to the hospital,” Dr. Sophaktra said.

But Dr. Khuon Eng Mony, deputy director of the Ministry of Health’s department for preventive medicine, said that it was possible many fatalities went unreported.

“In very rural areas, they go to a healer, so maybe they never get real treatment,” Dr. Eng Mony said.

According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 100,000 people worldwide die from snakebites every year, although most bites go unreported, particularly in developing countries.

“Assessing the true impact [of snake bites] is further complicated by the fact that cases reported to health ministries by clinics and hospitals are often only a small proportion of the actual burden because many victims never reach primary care facilities, and are therefore unreported,” the WHO said on its website.

Neang Thy, a herpetologist with the Ministry of Environment who also works for Fauna and Flora International, estimates that nationwide, hundreds of people die each year.

“I think more people die from snakebites than landmines,” Mr. Thy said, adding that the widespread belief that consuming animal horn can cure snakebites also led to many deaths in the countryside.

While the neurotoxic venom of cobras and kraits causes muscle contraction as well as paralysis, vipers inject a venom that typically leads to strong pain and swelling, necrosis and disruptions of the cardiovascular system that eventually lead to death.

Bites by the 5-meter-long King Cobra, the world’s most poisonous snake, are rare as the species lives in dense forests and tends to flee when it senses potential danger, Mr. Thy said, adding that the Monocellate Cobra, which lives in flooded areas and lowlands, causes the most fatalities in Cambodia.

“When areas flood, they go nearby houses and that’s when they usually bite. If they are threatened they react very aggressively, they open their hood” before attacking, he said, adding that Spitting Cobras, also venomous, specifically target people’s eyes and can cause blindness.

Kraits, of which several species are found in Cambodia, usually bite people fishing around rocks in the late evening, when the nocturnal serpent wakes up to hunt fish.

The most common, though not necessarily fatal, incidents occurred with Pit Vipers—most likely the species that bit the Kompong Chhnang teenager— which are usually found in rice paddies and along dirt paths, where they are almost invisible to farmers.

“They cause your tissue to rot, around the foot where they bite, but this is rarely ever reported because it is not deadly,” Mr. Thy said.

Despite the presumably large number of deaths due to snakebites, Mr. Thy said that snakes only attack when they feel threatened. King Cobras for example, among the most intelligent snakes, can tell the difference between potentially friendly and dangerous encounters, and merely head-butt, rather than bite, humans they consider friendly.

“No one likes snakes because people…think they are dangerous and don’t look nice. Sometimes they are killed for no reason, and there are more snakes killed by people than people killed by snakes,” Mr. Thy said.

(Additional reporting by Ben Sokhean)

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