Taking Action for the Parishioners Instead of Just Worrying About Them

May 31, 2024

There is no official data available, but it is estimated that about seven thousand people in Venezuela are bitten by a snake each year. Aware of the nationwide shortage of snake antivenom, that is, the anti-venom treatment for snakebites, Priest Johnny Arias came up with the idea of creating an antivenom bank funded by his own community.

 PHOTOS: RAÚL MÁRQUEZ

It was well into the wee hours of a March day in 2021, and Priest Jhonny Arias couldn’t help but toss and turn thinking about something that had happened just a few days before: a farmer from a neighboring village, while working in his vegetable garden, was bitten by a common lancehead or mapanare, a venomous type of snake that lives in the mountains of the state of Táchira. The man somehow made it to the nearest dispensary, from where he was transferred to the emergency area of the San Cristóbal Central Hospital, but they had no snake antivenom to treat the bite. He was taken to the Military Hospital, but they had no antivenom either. That’s when a medical doctor suggested to the man’s relatives that they look for it in the drugstores of Cúcuta, across the border with Colombia, a one-hour drive from where they were.

Time was of the essence.

Although not all snakes are venomous, when a venomous one bites someone and releases the toxic substance it produces, the victim experiences a series of symptoms; it all depends on the type of snake and on the amount of venom that has been pushed into the person’s bloodstream, but they generally include pain, swelling, redness, fever and vomiting. In a matter of hours, blood-clotting disorders and heart, respiratory or kidney failure may follow, which could be life-threatening if not treated on time.

That is why, when people are bitten by a snake, doctors strongly recommend that they be rushed to a healthcare facility to find out if they need to be administered snake antivenom, the antitoxin that saves people’s lives and is included in the Model List of Essential Medicines of the World Health Organization.

The farmer’s family scraped together money from their savings and his daughter left as fast as she could for Cúcuta, where she bought two kits of the polyvalent snake antivenom, the one that is administered for mapanare envenomation. A kit is a small box that carries five 10-mm doses of the serum. It is up to the treating physician to decide how many to inject depending on how swollen the affected area of the patient’s body is, its blood clotting time, and whether or not there is vomiting and fever involved.

In this case, two kits were enough.

That man pulled through, but the priest, who always has people’s welfare at heart, couldn´t get the incident out of his head.

Jhonny Arias was born in Caracas, but he has been living in Táchira for 20 years now. He is the parish priest of the San Rafael Arcángel Church in El Pinal, a community located in the Fernández Feo municipality, south of the state, where it all occurred. He arrived there in 2016 and has since endeared himself to the villagers because of the many things he has done for them. For example, he organized the opening of a food pantry for older people, a medicine bank, a “parish closet” with secondhand or donated clothes, and a temporary shelter for migrants.

“I’d rather do something for my parishioners than just sit around worrying about them,” he often says.

What could he do now?

According to the Pan American Health Organization, more than five million people are bitten by snakes each year, and one hundred thirty thousand die as a result. There are around two hundred species in Venezuela, 20 percent of which are venomous; that is according to the Vivarium Foundation, an organization that follows up on the subject and estimates that approximately seven thousand people are bitten by a snake annually in the country. Luis Fernando Navarrete, who is the head of the serpentarium of the Tropical Medicine Institute of the Central University of Venezuela, notes that the country may be one with the highest morbidity and mortality rates from snake envenomation.

But one cannot know for sure because there are no official data available.

That night, Priest Jhonny Arias didn’t know how serious the problem was, but he had a certain idea because he had learned that when people got bitten by a snake, the health centers they went to had no snake antivenom to treat the bite.

That’s why he was so anxious. That’s why he couldn’t sleep.

The birds announced the morning was about to break. He hadn’t slept a wink. He sluggishly got up, had a cup of coffee, opened his computer, and started searching for information on the internet.

He read that Ildemaro Pacheco, the then president of the Health Corporation of the State of Táchira, claimed that purchasing snake antivenom was awfully expensive for them as regional authorities and that they were not receiving any from the Ministry of Health. Ergo, they had none to offer.

He also learned that that was the case everywhere in Venezuela, for the country’s hospitals rarely had the serum in stock and “the people was left defenseless in that kind of emergencies.”

What if a snake antivenom bank was created that could be financed by the community itself, he wondered.

He didn’t stop thinking about it. Several days later, Priest Jhonny, while having a snack, came up with the idea of organizing a radiothon with the support of the local radio stations to raise funds for the snake antivenom bank. That would buy him the snake antivenom kits that he could distribute to those in need thereof.

He contacted the managers of the Biotecfar Laboratory of the Central University of Venezuela, which is the sole facility that produces the drug in the country, and was told that the kits were $240 each. With that piece of information, he set out to joining efforts with other people. He held meetings at the parish house with lay apostolate groups, civil and law-enforcement authorities, associations and the media.

Many people felt inspired by his idea and got down to work on it right away. Flyers were posted by journalists in social network sites, and press releases about the initiative were published in digital media and broadcasted on radio stations. It became a topic of conversation around town.

The radiothon was scheduled to air on April 30, 2021.

Wearing white, more than six hundred volunteers took to the streets to collect money for the project. At the same time, hosts and journalists from radio stations in the south of Táchira and Alto Apure, including Kalidad 90.3, Integración 100.5, Radio San Rafael 103.3, Radio La Voz, Radio Fe y Alegría El Nula 106.1, Superior 92.9, Notisur and La Nación Radio, kept reporting on the importance of a snake antivenom bank for the community and on the progress of the fundraising activity.

The mood was festive. People of all ages and from various religious and political affiliations crossed roads, bridges, streams and pastures to help raise as much money as they could.

Cattle were donated by agricultural producers.

Contributions were made in cash.

Foreign currency transfers were made by people abroad into a bank account that was specially set up for the event; some pitched in more than others, but they all helped achieve the intended goal. The amount raised was $16,000, give or take.

It was a moment of pure joy.

The money was used to purchase kits. The kits were made available for use by whoever needed one, on condition that they paid for them later on. That would allow the bank to restock.

Some ninety people have benefited from the bank in more than two years not only in the Fernández Feo municipality, but also elsewhere in Táchira, Barinas and Apure.

—“I am certain that we have accomplished our mission to save lives,” comments Priest Jhonny. “And we will keep saving lives, God willing.”

He adds that he is taking the first steps into the second stage of the Snake Antivenom Bank program.

—“We want to create a serpentarium in a farm that is about a 15-minute ride from our parish and is managed by the Táchira National Experimental University. That would be an ideal place to learn about the species of snakes that swarm in the region.

He knows it will not be an easy task, but he is confident that he will succeed with the support of the communities and the media.

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As a journalist I have worked in the main printed media in Táchira. I have also worked for digital media in Spain and Colombia. One of my vices is reading. Writing is a daily challenge.

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