Swabbing pythons to save lives

SINGAPORE - He swabs mouths of pythons for a good reason - to set a standard for treatment at hospitals when it comes to non-poisonous snake bites.

"Most hospital emergency rooms have in place a protocol to treat venomous snake bites. However, there is hardly any literature on bites from non-poisonous snakes like pythons," said National University Hospital medical officer Ryan Yak, 29.

Dr Yak and Ms Anna Lundin, 45, a clinical fellow from Sweden, have swabbed the mouths and skin of 10 pythons that had been captured and handed over to the Acres Wildlife Rescue Centre.

Hand surgeon Sandeep Jacob Sebastin, who is part of the three-man team, said: "Regardless of whether the snake is venomous or not, a snake bite will still need to be treated with antibiotics due to high bacteria rates in a snake's mouth."

The swabs will help the team determine what kinds of bacteria can be found in the mouths of snakes. The most common bacteria found is Pseudomonas, which infects damaged tissues or those with reduced immunity.

Symptoms include inflammation, blood infection and, in critical cases, failure of organs such as the lungs and kidneys.

The other common bacteria found in the serpent's mouth is Staphylococcus, which lives harmlessly on many skin surfaces. But when the skin is punctured or broken, the bacteria enters the wound and causes an infection that could lead to food poisoning or toxic shock syndrome.

Dr Sebastin told The New Paper that to ascertain the seriousness of a python's bite, the physician will need to know the force of the bite and "how deep it had penetrated". This will help determine "whether surgery is needed to repair crushed tendons".

"We have written to herpetologist Brady Barr, the host of Nat Geo Wild's Dangerous Encounters with Brady Barr, hoping to work with him on this project. We are still awaiting his reply," he said.

Pythons are indigenous to Singapore and have adapted well to urbanised environments. They are found in drains and sewers - and even in vehicles.

In July last year, a half-metre-long python was found near the coin deposit box of an SBS bus. In June, a python was found curled up in the engine compartment of a taxi.

It was around 4m long and had crawled in through the undercarriage.


A 2010 study of the emergency room of a local public hospital identified 52 cases of snakebites between 2004 and 2008.

Of these, four were python bites.

Those at risk include those whose work outdoors involves contact with vegetation, such as construction workers, grass cutters, sweepers and soldiers training in forested areas.

"Also in that group are police officers and pest control personnel who are tasked to catch the snakes," Dr Sebastin said.

And with more people venturing into wildlife areas, the team feels there should be a proper protocol when treating python bites.

They hope to publish their findings in a local peer journal and have hospitals adopt the recommendations.


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