Snakes Harmful and Harmless®


Snakes & Snakebite


A small elapid snake (Parasuta bushi) from Scaddan, Western Australia

SNAKES & SNAKEBITE

Snakes are shy and therefore rarely seen. However each spring and summer some do find their way into and around buildings and other areas where they encounter people. Remember though, they cannot eat you therefore they do not want to bite you. Snakes only bite in defence when threatened, accidentally picked up in material such as tree prunings and firewood or trodden on. Ninety-five per cent of bites are on the forearms or lower legs, most are on the lower legs.

Each year in Australia as many as 4,000 people are bitten. Of these about 40 are seriously envenomed and require antivenom treatment and one or two bites prove fatal. This illustrates the snake's reluctance to use venom for defence. The venom is a complex combination of proteins with two main purposes, initially to immobilise prey and then to accelerate the digestion of that prey.

Only one death has occurred in recent years where first aid was carried out immediately after the bite. This case involved the torso and multiple bites after an 11 year old Victorian boy rolled on a snake. All actual or suspect snakebite should be treated as potentially dangerous and first aid administered.

There are 119 species known from Western Australia with 80 being front-fanged venomous snakes. Of these, 24 are sea snakes (hydrophids) with six having been recorded as far south as the Perth region. Of the 56 venomous land snakes (elapids), 15 occur locally. Most are not dangerously venomous to adults. In the Perth area the dugite or spotted brown snake and Tiger Snake are the most common elapids.

Australian elapid snakes are often said to be the deadliest or most venomous in the world, with the inference that this is to humans. The truth of the matter is, they are only the deadliest or most venomous if you are a mouse!. Mice are the standard used to compare the strengths of different snake venoms. Tissue from mice and rats is 50 times less responsive to Funnelweb Spider (Atrax robustus) venom than human tissue. A Dr Kellaway in 1934 found adult mice to be unaffected by raw Funnelweb Spider venom. Many small mammals are resistant to the venom of this spider, but humans can die from its effects.

Africa, Asia and South America have far fewer venomous snakes than Australia but lose far more people from snakebite. India alone loses 5,000-15,000 people a year - for Australia to have a comparable number of fatalities with our smaller population we would have from 100 to 200 deaths a year. Actually in this country one to two fatalities is average. In the 34 years to September 2013, 47 deaths have, in part, been attributed to snakebite in Australia (Sutherland, 1992 & 1995 plus media reports to 2001). Brown snakes (genus Pseudonaja) were involved in 29 cases, tiger snakes 11 (genus Notechis - 8, Hoplocephalus - 1 and Tropidechis - 2), Northern or Coastal Taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus) 4 and death adder (genus Acanthophis) 3. All large venomous snakes are dangerous but there are too many variables to consider one species more dangerous than another.

REFERENCES

Sutherland, S.K. 1992. Deaths from snakebite in Australia, 1981-1991. Med. J. Aust. 157: 740-745
Sutherland, S.K. 1995. Snakebite deaths in Australia 1992-1994 and a management update. Med. J. Aust. 163: 616-618


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