Rice farmer Khong Phat will never forget the day he nearly died – an Indochinese spitting cobra bit him as he was pumping water into his paddy fields near Kampot.
“When it first bit me, it didn’t hurt at first but half an hour later I couldn’t breathe and could hardly walk,” recalls the 42-year-old.
Luckily he was working in the field with his brother when he was bitten above his right knee. His brother promptly killed the snake and took it home to cook for dinner, while Khong Phat was sent for first aid to Kampong Trach district health centre near his home.
The clinic gave him an injection and sent him home, although when the wounds failed to heal, the family took him to a traditional healer.
“After the traditional doctor spat the traditional medicine from his mouth on my wound, I felt relief from the pain, but that only lasted about an hour so he had to do the same thing every hour,” recalls Khong Phat.
“Two days later, my family decided to bring me to the Hand of Help hospital in Sihanoukville.” This is run by an NGO dedicated to treating victims of snake bite for free with anti-venin and educating people about poisonous and non-venomous snakes in Cambodia.
The cobra’s poison had infected Khong Phat’s wound, but treatment at Hand of Help saved his leg from amputation or further infection. After staying at the hospital for one month, he was finally allowed home to the farm to see his family.
That was two months ago – he’s one of the few snake victims to survive, as most Cambodians are bitten by the more common Malayan pit vipers.
Teth Sovath, a 45-year- old palm oil worker, was bitten by a viper last month when he was collecting palm fruits while working barefoot in Preah Sihanouk’s Prey Nob district.
“I could feel the pain immediately it bit me, but after I walked about 100 metres, I collapsed and the pain grew really bad as the blood flowed out of the bite.”
After a 12-day course of anti-venin treatment at Hand of Help clinic, he recovered – but says he definitely won’t be going to work without his boots in future.
About 30 or 40 victims of snake attack are treated by the clinic at Hand of Help every month, according to nurse Lok Kiry, 22.
Most are bitten by Malayan pit vipers because these snakes, with their attractive banded markings, live around farms and their camouflage makes it easy for them to hide undetected in piles of leaves or undergrowth.
It generally doesn’t attack people but most bites happen when people accidentally step on the snakes, he says, especially if they aren’t wearing enclosed footwear.
“Their bite can make people’s flesh swell up and rot, and can cause disability or even death,” Lok Kiry warns.
However, their toxin is not as strong as that produced by the cobra family, which in Cambodia include king cobras, monocellate cobras or the Indochinese spitting cobra, which attacked rice farmer Khong Phat.
Delaying treatment or stopping first at traditional doctors can seriously hinder the victims’ recovery from a snake bite, says the nurse.
By the time victims arrive at his clinic, some suffer from swelling and dead tissue around the wounds after seeing traditional healers.
“People who are attacked by a snake shouldn’t panic, should not drink alcohol, and should not tie a tourniquet around the wound the block the toxins,” advises Lok Kiry.
“They should lie down on a flat surface, drink plenty of water, and get to our hospital as soon as possible.”
Advice on snakebite and identifying poisonous snakes is also available from Hand of Help by telephone, 034 934 331.