Once Bitten

Over the past few weeks Oti Kesar's two daughters, from the Tal-Shahar moshav, have refused to go to the family's stable. They have not been able to accept the death of their 12-year-old mare, Golden, who was stung by a viper (the Vipera Palaestinae, to be precise). A shortage of serum against such snake bites led to her death. "She was a pretty, pure-bred mare that was with us for a long time. She shouldn't have died," says Kesar.

Several days ago, veterinarians were told that the stock of serum in Israel for treating animals against viper stings had completely run out. This followed two months during which the veterinarians suffered from a serious shortage of that serum. The present period is the peak of the summer season and there are daily instances of vipers stinging livestock.

Veterinarian Gil Shavit, of Yesud Hama'ala in the north, says that last week he had to use the last of his serum in order to save the life of a bitten dog. "I don't know what I am going to do the next time a dog or a horse reaches me after having been stung. On average, during the summer, I use this serum about once a week."

Producing the serum is a long and expensive process. It begins with milking venom from vipers and injecting it, in gradually increasing dosages, into a group of horses earmarked for this process. The venom's presence in the horses' blood system stimulates the immune system, which then produces blood rich with antibodies. Several days later, blood is drawn from the horses and the serum is then developed from that. The serum is designed for humans as well, but throughout the year the drug was provided primarily for treating animals. A single shot costs some NIS 1,000, which the animals' owners must pay for.

Veterinarian Giora Avni treats mainly horses. He says that "a stung horse must get the serum, about half the horses that are bitten will die unless they receive it."

Kesar says he and Dr. Avni have approached every possible organization - hospitals, the military, the police - requesting the serum. "Nothing helped. The hospitals told us they have limited supplies of the serum and Golden, who was taken to a veterinary hospital, died after a week. The foal that she had given birth to a few days earlier also died."

After Golden's death, Dr. Avni managed to save three horses using expired serum that had trickled over to the veterinary doctors.

Now that that supply has also run out, he is helpless. "If a bitten horse will arrive, I cannot do anything for it," he says.

The Agriculture Ministry, which is responsible for veterinary services, said that the Health Ministry is in charge of the serum against viper stings. The Health Ministry said, in response, that it signed a NIS 20 million two-year agreement with the Kamada pharmaceutical company for developing a serum against snake bites.