Since 1923, Thai Red Cross Society has raised snakes to produce much-needed anti-venoms and conducted valuable vaccine research.
The King Cobra raises its head above its body, spreads its hood and appears ready to strike. Looking on, a crowd of tourists and school children lean forward, some snapping pictures, all riveted with expressions of nervous curiosity.
Everyone here is perfectly safe. The scene is part of a demonstration put on by the staff of the Thai Red Cross Society Snake Farm, an expansive zoo and natural history museum for snakes that is also part of an institute established nearly 90 years ago to develop and produce anti-venom.
The show is as educational as it is colourful. Standing before the audience, a Thai Red Cross worker holds up a “Banded Krait” — a two-meter long serpent known for its distinctive yellow and black bands and its deadly bite. The audience gets a good look as well as seful information about how to identify dangerous snakes and avoid being bitten.
It’s a typical day at the snake farm, a very atypical enterprise created by the Thai Red Cross Society in 1923 to support the work of the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute, a scientific centre created in 1913 to research vaccines and various aspects of medical science. The Institute was conceived in 1911 by Prince Damrong, whose daughter, Princess Banlusirisarn, died of rabies. For more, go to www.saovabha.com/en
In 1917, the Thai Red Cross was given control of the Institute and over the years, the facility expanded and the scope of its research broadened. Today, the Institute produces roughly 80,000 doses of anti-venom annually, and the snake farm attracts some 40,000 people from Thailand and around the world.
After the demonstration, members of the audience pose with the non-venomous serpents — the coils of the boa for example draping around their shoulders.
Then they might learn about anatomy and physiology of snakes in the exhibit hall or visit the 100-seat auditorium to watch workers extract venom from snakes fangs before the audience.
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It’s fun, fascinating and exciting. But it’s also deadly serious. With more than 190 varieties of snakes in Thailand — 61 of which are poisonous — the need to know how to avoid the dangers of snakes and manage snakebites is critical. Given the frequency of snakebites in Thailand, and the reality that medical care can be difficult to access in rural areas, availability of the serum makes the difference between life and death.
Largely due to deforestation, and perhaps to educational efforts, over the years the number of deaths from snakebites has dropped from roughly 20,000 annually to 8,000. Still, the need for serum remains. The Institute is responsible for providing serum to all hospitals in Thailand. If there is a surplus, the product is sold to surrounding countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Viet Nam, which face the same challenges. The World Health Organisation, an official collaborating partner with the Institute, is hoping that the number of vials produced annually will soon expand from 80,000 to 200,000.
But the Institute’s work doesn’t stop there. In addition to producing anti-venom, the Institute is also a leading research centre for rabies as well as other toxins of dangerous insects such as scorpions, jellyfish and wasps. It also hosts a clinic for people to receive vaccinations and information before travelling abroad.
The snake farm is just one example of the many diverse ventures that generate income for Red Cross Red Crescent National Societies around the world. In this case, however, raising funds is not the goal. The primary aim, as with many National Society ventures, is to save lives by filling a humanitarian need that was not otherwise being met.
The Thai Red Cross Society brings in income from the museum visits and sales of the anti-venom. But in general, as Visith Sitprija, a medical doctor, emeritus professor and director of the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute points out, profits are minimal.
“Our work here focuses on the Red Cross mandate to serve the health of the Thai people,” Visith explains. “This is why, over time, we began to research the toxins of other dangerous animals such as scorpions, jellyfish, and puffer fish. And why we focus on the production of vaccines against diseases such as influenza, rabies and encephalitis”.
In 2013, with Visith’s oversight, the Thai Red Cross Society expects to debut several new, more affordable vaccines for Thailand, since the research and production will be done in-country.
Like any venture, the Snake Farm and the serum production are not without risks. For example, as with many medicines, there is the risk of an allergic reaction to the anti-venom, something known as serum sickness. Although the risk is very rare, the Thai Red Cross Society provides detailed instructions on the use and potential side effects of the serum, both on the package and in leaflets, in order to reduce any risks.
To better understand the risks of such ventures, the IFRC has launched a global study of 20 to 25 Red Cross and Red Crescent enterprises in order to analyze and share lessons learned about the risks and benefits of income-generating projects. The Thai Red Cross Society has recently agreed to participate in the survey, which is being carried out by the global accounting firm KPMG.
“For the Thai Red Cross Society, the snake farm is a success not only because of the fact we are a popular tourist attraction, but more importantly, we are able to provide key health-care services and protection through our research, production and educational endeavours,” says Visith.
This article first appeared in the Red Cross Red Crescent Magazine.