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300 poisonous snakes, one city centre home; Anti-venoms save lives across world.

Byline: Laura Davis

THE snake man wiped his hands on his camouflage combat trousers and paused to point out a large venomous reptile lying coiled on a branch.

Then he grabbed a large metal hook and scooped up the hissing rattlesnake in his path.

But this is no perilous jungle, Paul Rowley works in the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

Around 300 poisonous snakes of 45 different species live in five small rooms in the Pembroke Place building overlooking the city's rooftops.

They are milked for their venom every Thursday to produce antivenoms,as well as to be studied for elements that could be used as future life-savingdrugs.

The anti-venoms produced as a result of the milking process are sent all over the world and have already saved the lives of hundreds of people bitten by snakes.

Mr Rowley, who first kept snakes at the age of seven and worked in the zoo where his grandparents and father worked, said: ``It takes two of us to milk a snake.

``You get it to bite into a dish and massage the venom glands at the same time.

``We do this once a week and can get through about 150 of the smaller snakes, like carpet vipers, in a morning.''

To ensure the reptiles are comfortable, the rooms are kept at a temperature of 28 to 30 degrees Celsius and the humidity is also regulated.

They are fed on dead mice, which are frozen when delivered to the unit by the University of Liverpool, and drink from bowls of water.

Their venom is freeze-dried and stored in a fridge.

Mr Rowley has handled the snakes around half a million times since starting the job 10 years ago and claims to know them individually.

He said: ``They all have different personalities.

``You could say that a particular species is typically aggressive or placid, but even within a species they are different.

``We have three black mambas and one of them is really docile while the other two will always have a go.''

Despite the dangerous nature of the job, there have only been three or four bites over the unit's 32-year history.

This is due to elaborate security measures that include having handling tools placed near the entrance of the snake room in case a snake has escaped during the night. They have not yet had to be used.

If one of the handlers is bitten, he is taken over the road to the Royal Liverpool Hospital where antivenom is available.

There is a coloured card on each cage, giving emergency details of which antidote is needed for treatment.

Mr Rowley said: ``Because we are aware of the potential danger I think we are more careful than people in jobs where the danger isn't obvious.

``People who say snake bites aren't serious don't know what they're talkingabout.

``It's not like in Westerns when someone is bitten and they die instantly,it can take days.

``Shock can be a big problem and it can lead to internal bleeding or paralysis of the muscles responsible for breathing.

``Either way it's not a nice way to die.''

Set up in 1971, the venom research unit as the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine is the country's main venom research institute.

The antivenoms are developed by injecting very small amounts of venom into horses or sheep.

The amounts of venom given to the animals are very small and the animals are therefore not harmed in any way.

It works like a vaccination - the animal develops antibodies which makes it partially immune from the effects of the poison.

The dosage is then gradually increased until the horse or sheep is fully protected from a lethal dose of the venom.

Blood is then taken and the natural antibodies form the basis for the antidote.

Prof David Theakston,head of the venom research unit and director of the World Health Organisation collaborating centre for the control of antivenoms, said: ``Snakebite is primarily a problem of the rural tropics so it is the poor subsistence farmers, children, herds men and hunters who are mostly affected. These are the people on whom the long term prosperity of a region depends.

``Antivenoms are often not available and,even where they are,are not the right ones. One of our aims is to increase the availability of antivenoms in poorer countries.''

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DEADLY: Snakes are milked for their venom, which is used for anti-venoms and for the development of drugs Picture: COLIN LANE
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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Oct 10, 2003
Words:749
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