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Poisonous snake man of Papua New Guinea

Telegraph UK -David Williams clambered over a heap of discarded coconut shells, inspecting the husks gingerly for deadly snakes lurking within. Behind him, one of Papua New Guinea’s liveliest volcanoes smouldered ominously.

Two hours later, his day’s dangerous work was done. Two highly poisonous Papua New Guinean small-eyed snakes - whose venom can kill a person in hours - had been captured and safely boxed away, ready to be transported to Mr Williams’ laboratory in the capital, Port Moresby.
It was just another day at the office for Mr Williams, an Australian scientist who has devoted his career to saving hundreds of lives lost to snake bites in Papua New Guinea each year.


For several months at a time, he criss-crosses the country, armed with a two-pronged “grab stick” and cloth sack, to capture some of its deadliest predators - death adders, Papuan black snakes, brown snakes and the worst offender of all, the fearsome Papuan taipan.


It is all part of an extraordinary, herpetological “milk round” which involves extracting the snakes’ venom in order to conduct research and develop an affordable, freeze-dried anti-venom that could save as many as 1,000 lives each year.


Wrestling with a Papuan taipan to milk the venom from its fangs is not a feat for the faint-hearted, Mr Williams admitted. They can grow to more than 10ft long and are highly muscular and powerful.


“Every time you grab one of these snakes by the tail you fully have to expect that this is the snake that’s going to bite you, that’s going to kill you," he said.


He has good reason to be concerned. Since his fascination with snakes began as a young boy growing up in the New South Wales bush, Mr Williams estimates he has been bitten six times. The most recent occasion, earlier this year, was his closest shave yet.


Struck three times on the leg by an enraged Papuan taipan, Mr Williams was rushed to Port Moresby hospital by an Australian documentary crew who were filming him at the time.


"If that journey had taken 10 more minutes I wouldn’t be here now," he said.


Successful venom extraction involves seizing a snake by its tail and pinning it down by the neck using a hook-ended pole. The reptile must then be persuaded to clamp its formidable fangs onto a small polyurethane container, spitting out its poison in the process.


Typical of rural Australians, Mr Williams has a bluff, no-nonsense attitude to his eccentric livelihood.

"Some bloke has got to be prepared to stick his neck out, otherwise nothing is ever going to change. It is a fairly rational decision that I have made, which will hopefully benefit the people of Papua New Guinea in the long run."


Mr Williams, 43, a reptile handler turned clinical toxinologist, heads the Papua New Guinea section of Melbourne University’s Australian Venom Research Unit, and will shortly complete a doctorate on his work.


Sensibly, he keeps a few vials of anti-venom in his home fridge to safeguard against just such emergencies. But Papua New Guinea is an impoverished country which struggles to afford the pricey, Australian-made anti-venom that so many of its citizens need.


Costs have rocketed 1000 per cent in 20 years - a single vial now costs AUD$2,000 (£955) - and even major hospitals routinely run out of supplies. Most clinics do not have refrigerators, so are unable to store the liquid anti-venom imported from Australia.


The shortage is not helped by a healthy black market in stolen anti-venom, which commonly disappears from government stores only to turn up at highly inflated prices on the shelves of private pharmacies.


It is a grave scenario for a country where some 6,000 people are bitten by snakes each year, almost half of them children. In some regions, snake bites kill three times as many people as malaria.


"Snake bite is a treatable disease. It should never be a death sentence," Mr Williams said. "How do you tell someone that their five-year-old son is going to die simply because no-one can afford to buy the medicine?"


He spends much of his time educating doctors and health workers on basic first aid for snake bites, and attempting, diplomatically, to disabuse villagers of the merits of folk remedies and mythology. Papua New Guinea is a deeply spiritual and superstitious country, where many believe that a snake bite is retribution for wrongs such as theft or adultery.


For Mr Williams, though, snake bite deaths are a sorely neglected problem and he is a passionate advocate for change. "Look at how much money has been spent on helping the victims of land mines. Look at how much has been spent trying to develop a vaccine for malaria.


"In the mean time, thousands of people are dying of snake bites who could have potentially been saved with a cure that is available here and now. It’s nothing short of a tragedy."


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Added: May-19-2008 
By: slither65
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Tags: SNAKE, VENOM, DEATH, RESEARCH
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