Snakes in Australia - the truth and the myths about getting bitten

Deadly: Professor Geoff Isbister researches snakebites. He's pictured with a preserved mulga snake, also known as a king brown snake. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers
Deadly: Professor Geoff Isbister researches snakebites. He's pictured with a preserved mulga snake, also known as a king brown snake. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

Fear of snakes is common in Australia, particularly among tourists.

But the notion that venomous snakes sink their fangs and venom into a lot of people is a “complete myth”, University of Newcastle Professor Geoff Isbister says.

Snakebites in Australia cause about two deaths a year, said Professor Isbister, of the university’s Clinical Toxicology Research Group.

The group is based at the Calvary Mater Newcastle hospital, which contains the only lab in Australia that measures all kinds of snake venom.

The researchers examine venom in the blood of snakebite victims to pinpoint the type of snake and the effects of the bite.

Professor Isbister is part of the Australian Snakebite Project, which records snakebites and envenomings [when venom enters the blood].

The project examines 70 per cent to 80 per cent of all snakebites in Australia.

While it’s difficult to know the exact figures, it’s been estimated that about 3000 to 5000 snakebites a year happen in Australia.

“Some people get dry bites by non-venomous snakes and some get bit by sticks,” he said.

“There’s only 100 to 200 severe envenomings each year – cases that need antivenom.”

Half of all cases involve “people interfering with snakes”.

“One in 10 cases are snake handlers. Then there’s men who do stupid things with snakes. And there’s still the occasional person who walks out their front door on a rural property and treads on a brown snake,” he said.

“The problem with brown snakes is they have very small fangs. When they bite, they may leave no mark and you may feel nothing, but you may have a severe envenoming.”

A tourist might get bitten by a snake once or twice a year.

“In terms of coming to Australia, you’re far more likely to be killed in the taxi on the way to the airport,” he said.

Professor Isbister will this year begin a new five-year, $800,000 fellowship, funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

His work aims to make snakebite medicine more precise.

“Antivenom is expensive and comes with risk,” he said.

“It’s effective when you give it correctly, which means giving it early. It won’t do anything if it’s given inappropriately.

Our focus now is on antivenom being effective. The hardest thing to work out is whether people have been envenomed.

Professor Geoff Isbister

With most snakebites, people turn up to hospital within an hour or two. However, medicos often have no way of knowing whether patients have been envenomed.

“Everyone who has a decent story or a suspected snakebite will be admitted to hospital for observation for 12 hours,” he said.

As things stand, patients occasionally get antivenom when they don’t need it.

The professor’s research aims to develop a blood test that can be done at the bedside.

Such a test would quickly determine if a patient had been envenomed, confirming the need for antivenom.