Earthwatch-supported researchers working in western Kenya find 24 plants used by Luo people to treat snakebites, presenting potential alternatives to serum therapy
Kenya - Up to 80 percent of snakebite victims in western Kenya consult traditional practitioners before visiting a medical center. An investigation of the traditional remedies of the Luo people of western Kenya, supported by Earthwatch Institute, reveals a wealth of indigenous knowledge regarding herbal remedies to snake bites.
The findings are reported in the current issue of the Journal of Ethnobiology by Kenyan botanists Bethwell Owuor, Benson Mulemi (both of the Catholic University of Eastern Africa), and John Kokwaro ( University of Nairobi). The study draws attention to the extent of snakebite victims and the need for alternatives to venom therapies that are more accessible, less expensive, and less dangerous.
"Although it is well known that snake bites are a major cause of mortality globally, it is not appreciated that a very small percentage of victims are ever handled in hospitals with antiserum therapy," said Owuor, former principal investigator of Earthwatch's Medicinal Plants of Kenya project. "Only the largest hospitals in the region have serum antivenin intermittently, and rural hospitals are generally poorly staffed and lack electricity for refrigeration."
An estimated 600,000 people around the world are bitten by venomous snakes each year, resulting in more than 20,000 deaths. Africa is a global diversity center for the most feared snake families, Old World vipers and cobras (including mambas), and Kenya alone has 97 species in these groups. The risk of snakebite to people in western Kenya, a largely rural region where most people engage in agricultural, pastoral, and other outdoor livelihoods, is moderate to high, according to the authors.
Their study involved interviewing 100 Luo people, both lay people and traditional practitioners, about local perceptions and beliefs about snakebites, including traditional treatments and practices. Some of these interviews were conducted in 2000 and 2001 with the help of Earthwatch volunteers, who were investigating a wide range of herbal remedies on the Medicinal Plants of Kenya project.
The researchers identified 24 plant species used by traditional practitioners for the treatment of snakebites, and collected voucher specimens of each plant in the field. Of the remedies used, 73 percent were made from the plants' leaves, 19 percent from roots, and 8 percent from bark. Researchers also found a strong mystical component to traditional therapies, based on the common local belief that illnesses are ascribed to spirits and witchcraft.
Although anti-venom serum is the only therapeutic agent available throughout the world for snakebites, it is not always effective and can produce fatal allergic reactions. What's worse, it is a scarce and expensive commodity, usually only available at large hospitals far from the people most vulnerable to snakebites, such as those in western Kenya.
Botanical medicines from other regions around the world have been found to have important anti-venom properties, such as anti-inflammatory, coagulant, detoxification, and neutralization activities. This study gives further credence to the suggestion that herbal remedies can effectively complement serum therapy or alleviate negative side-effects. It is also a confirmation of the value of indigenous and cultural knowledge in the modern world.
"Traditional remedies will survive and provide health services even in highly industrialized setups because they are important pillars of culture and human socialization," said Owuor. "However, just like other parts of culture, they are dynamic, adopting methods from other cultures, and cumulative."
Earthwatch Institute is an international nonprofit organization that supports scientific field research by offering members of the public unique opportunities to work alongside leading field scientists and researchers. Earthwatch's mission is to engage people worldwide in scientific field research and education to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment.
For more information, see "Indigenous snake bite remedies of the Luo of western Kenya." Bethwell O. Owuor, Benson A. Mulemi, and John O. Kokwaro. Journal of Ethnobiology25(1): 129-141