In early February 2018, news outlets around the world reported on a disturbing incident that occurred at Mpoza village in Eastern Cape Province, South Africa. Approximately 60 people were taken to a hospital in Tsolo suffering from diarrhoea, stomach cramps, vomiting and headaches after apparently eating meat from a cow that had died after being bitten by a cobra. A number of children and elderly patients were subsequently transferred to Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital, while the remainder were treated at Mthatha Regional Hospital.

The Eastern Cape Department of Health spokesperson, Sizwe Kupelo, advised that another hospital had been placed on standby for additional patients. Mr Kupelo was widely quoted as saying that local communities had been urged to, ‘stop consuming meat from dead animals you find as it is dangerous to do so’, although a couple of sources also quoted him as warning villagers, ‘never to eat any livestock that had been killed by poisonous snakes’.

Most reports tacitly implied that the villagers from Mpoza were suffering the after-effects of the cobra’s venom, however a couple of the more sensationalist pieces went so far as to state that they believed this to be the case, surmising that the venom had spread through the cow’s flesh and ‘contaminated’ the meat. The toxic nature of cobra venom also received some attention.

This makes for interesting reading, but obviously most of the journalists involved were either incredibly lazy or operating under the principle of never letting the truth get in the way of a good story. Did none of them think to ask a herpetologist or other scientist whether it was possible for cobra venom to have such a far-reaching effect? Because venom toxins are typically large proteins that are relatively unstable and easily broken down by the digestive system, so unless you have an open wound somewhere in your gastrointestinal tract, ingestion is not likely to cause any problem. Furthermore, as I was reminded when discussing this case with a friend, there is no mention of the villagers cooking the meat, which would also quickly denature the venom proteins.

Photo: Snouted Cobra (Naja annulifera), Waterberg, South Africa. Image by Ryanvanhuyssteen; Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

So I kept looking through the reports of this episode, until at last I found one (at that made sense. The first thing that caught my attention was that this account likened the villagers’ symptoms to gastro. It went on to quote Sizwe Kupelo as saying that, ‘health officials have classified the cases as food poisoning’, something which all other reports conveniently left out. The Health24 journalist then consulted Dr Ernst Baard, a herpetologist, who confirmed that, “Unless a human has a serious stomach or mouth ulcer, the ingestion of snake venom is mostly not dangerous.” He also said that in his opinion it was more likely that the meat was off! These sentiments were echoed by a toxicologist who urged people to ensure that meat is properly preserved or prepared.

I get it. I mean, I could have entitled this blog, ‘Villagers sick after eating rancid cow’, but that wouldn’t have had quite the same impact. But unfortunately, most of the hyped-up reports concerning the ‘shocking’ events at Mpoza may also serve to unnecessarily drive irrational fears of venomous snakes.

A sample of reports:

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