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Exotic snakebites have increased over the last decade

In the UK, exotic pets are on the rise – and so are the number of snakebites. A recent study published in the journal Clinical Toxicology reveals that the rate of exotic snakebites has increased over the course of a decade.

According to the UK National Poisons Information Service (NPIS), 321 patients suffered exotic snakebites from 68 different species in the last 11 years. Among these patients, 15 had severe symptoms. This included a reptile conservationist who previously survived a bite from an eastern green mamba but died after being bitten by a king cobra.

The World Health Organization (WHO) considers more than 250 species of poisonous snakes native to Asia, Africa and Latin America as medically important. Encountering these dangerous species is no longer limited by geography. Snake ownership has increased in the UK, where one in 100 households now own a pet snake.

“The prospect of being bitten by an exotic (non-native) snake (in the UK) is still remote, with bites typically occurring in those keeping such snakes as part of their occupation or hobby,” explained study lead author Pardeep Jagpal. “Rapid access to expert clinical advice and the availability of appropriate anti-venom are important considerations when these accidents occur.”

The researchers reviewed telephone calls involving snakebites between January 2009 and December 2020. They excluded enquiries about the European adder – the only species of poisonous snake native to the UK – or where the identity of the snake was unknown.

Of the 321 exotic snakebites in 300 patients:

  • 207 (64.5%) of bites occurred in males – and 10 people were bitten more than once.
  • 72 (22.5%) of bites occurred in children – 13 of whom were aged five or under.
  • 184 (57.3%) of bites were inflicted by snakes of the family Colubridae, including hognose snakes, king snakes and false water cobras.
  • 30 (9.3%) of bites were by Viperidae species, including western diamondback rattlesnakes and copperheads.
  • 14 (4.3%) of bites were by Elapidae species – most commonly by Indian cobras, monocled cobras and king cobras.

The majority of the snake bites had either no symptoms or mild to moderate symptoms. However, fifteen bites involved severe symptoms caused by the front-fanged Viperidae or Elapidae. In total, seventeen people received antivenom treatment.

Study co-author Professor David Warrell of the University of Oxford is a world leading figure in tropical medicine, and the founding director of the Centre for Tropical Medicine and Wellcome Trust-Mahidol University Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Programme, Thailand.

“Most of these bites occur to fingers, hands and wrists following deliberate handling interaction by people who keep snakes as part of their occupation or hobby,” said Professor Warrell. 

“While ownership of many poisonous species requires a special licence in the UK, it is recognized that some individuals may keep these snakes illegally – meaning the true numbers of exotic snakebite injuries may be underestimated.”

By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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