A viper's venom as antidote to wrinkles

THE PUNCH Newspaper

Experts shed light on the medical values of the otherwise deadly viper’s venom, especially for women, in this report by Solaade Ayo-Aderele and Akeem Lasisi.

Ordinarily, snakes are not only reprehensible but they induce fear. The reactions are basically due to the havoc most snakes can cause through their venom. Plus, snakes are not the most attractive of creatures that the ordinary person can domesticate.

Treating victims of snake bites doesn‘t come cheap either. Last July, Gombe State in North-Eastern Nigeria witnessed an epidemic of snake attacks, which people in the rural areas of the state usually experience in the peak of the planting season.

In the July 2009 attack, about 300 people were admitted into the hospital for treatment of snake bites, while the state government confirmed that nine out of the 300 patients eventually died of the venomous attacks.

The deaths could have been prevented, reports say, if there had been adequate and immediate treatment for the victims. But, in a country where the minimum wage is N7,500, and the treatment for snake bite per victim costing N28,000 (nearly four months‘ pay), it is not unexpected.

To save its population, the Gombe State Government established the Snake Bite Treatment Centre, attached to the Kaltungo General Hospital. It was later taken over by the Federal Government and transformed into a centre for the treatment of snake bite victims from eight Northern states, with further aim of making it a National Centre for Disease Control. It is headed by Dr. Abubakar Ballah, the Chief Medical Officer.

Among snakes, cobras and coral snakes may be singled out as having particularly neurotoxic venom. The spitting cobra can spray its venom from a distance of about 2.4 (about 8 ft.) into the eyes of its victims, causing temporary blindness and great pain. Venom coming in contact with human eyes causes an immediate and severe irritation of the conjunctiva and cornea that, if untreated, may result in permanent blindness. The venom of cobras, a neurotoxin, acts powerfully on the nervous system, states www.cobra.org.

Despite these grim prognoses about snakes and their venom, however, our image conscious, youth obsessed world has found use for snake extracts, commonly called snake oil.

Perhaps, having studied the pattern of snake bites in Gombe‘s rural areas, and the most common of the snakes in the locality, Ballah and his team decided to make the best of a bad situation by coming up with an idea of processing cobra venom into an anti-ageing cosmetic preparation for women‘s use.

Ballah stated in an interview with newsmen that, “The black spitting cobra can help ageing women who want to look younger to realise their dreams.”

According to him, the venom of the reptile, when processed as cosmetics, could serve as a perfect antidote to wrinkles.

“Cobra venom has the capacity to relax body and facial muscles, making the body to become smooth,” he said.

He intimated that for those who dread wrinkles, all they need to do is to apply a little amount of the venom and their faces will become smooth.

The venom, he explained, could be used in pharmaceutical research, especially in the preparation of cosmetics and treatment of cardio-vascular diseases.

In reality, cobra venom has been used for many years in medical research because it has an enzyme, lecithinase, that dissolves cell walls as well as membranes surrounding viruses.

Venom itself has occasional medicinal uses; for example, it is used as pain killers in cases of arthritis or cancer, and sometimes serves as coagulants for people with haemophilia.

While Ballah‘s claims and research work are not new in the multi-billion dollar cosmetic industry, what is of concern here is that snake oil preparation for medical or routine beauty use has come under heavy reviews, criticisms and, sometimes, outright condemnation, such that the most common usage of the phrase ‘snake oil’ is as a derogatory term for compounds offered as medicines that implies they are fake, fraudulent, quackish, or ineffective.

The expression is also applied metaphorically to any product with exaggerated marketing but questionable or unverifiable quality or benefit.

According to researchers, fats and oils from snakes are higher in eicosapentaenoic acid, EPA, than other sources. Snake oil is still sold in traditional Chinese pharmacy stores.

With the high hopes placed on the preparation, it is not too surprising that with time, snake oil soon became a generic name for many compounds marketed as panaceas or miraculous remedies whose ingredients were usually secret, unidentified, or mischaracterised and mostly inert or ineffective, although the placebo effect might provide some relief for whatever the problem might have been.

Talking about the composition of a bottle of snake oil, a bottle bought by a user from San Francisco, USA, Chinatown, reportedly contained the following ingredients: 75 per cent mostly unidentified carrier material, including camphor, 25 per cent oil from Chinese water snakes, itself consisting of: 20 per cent eicosapentaenic acid (EPA) - an Omega-3 fatty acid, 48 per cent myristic acid (14:0), 10 per cent stearic acid (18:0), 14 per cent oleic acid (18:19), and 7 per cent linoleic acid (18:26) plus arachidonic acid (20:46).

One of the 20th Century‘s assiduous marketers of snake oil was Clark Stanley, whose appellation was Rattlesnake King. The American government once tested his much hyped snake oil preparation and discovered that it contained mineral oil, 1 per cent fatty oil (presumed to be beef fat), red pepper, turpentine and camphor –– ingredients similar to modern-day capsaicin-based liniments. Thus, this early snake oil may have worked somewhat as intended, even if it did not contain its alleged ingredients.

Reacting to the development, the immediate past President of the Pharmaceutical Association of Nigeria, Mr. Anthony Akhimien, said the notion made sense, only that much scientific work still needed to be done.

“In all of this, it again shows that we have not fully explored many things we are endowed with,” he said in a telephone interview with one of our correspondents. “But we must note that in Nigeria, nobody has really done any research to a conclusive end. There are claims here and there, but the actual constituents of the venom with medical value have to be identified. So, we can’t accept the claims yet until they have been well documented, scientifically verified and tested, say, on animals, and human beings too. Proper investigation must be done.”

A dermatologist in private practice who has his head office located on the Murtala Muhammed Road, Yaba, Lagos State, Dr. Abiodun Osinubi, said in over three decades of dermatological practice, he has neither handled a snake oil preparation, nor has he had any cause to prescribe it for any of his female patients under whatever circumstances. He noted, however, that specialists do use synthetic venom to treat certain medical conditions.

A pharmacist, Mr. Femi Adegbolagun, who operates a high-end pharmacy store in Ipaja area of Lagos State, also said he had not been dealing in snake oil or cobra venom preparations for cosmetic use. He said no customer has demanded for it in his pharmacy as far as he could remember.

Should Ballah and his team succeed in patenting an anti-wrinkle preparation eventually, with the readily available cobra venom as the active ingredient, Gombe State might soon begin to earn revenues via health tourism, what with the envisaged influx of the wealthy movie world personas and other private individuals for whom body beautiful and eternal youthfulness are uncompromisable requirements to remain in business.


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