A cobra in India. Photo: Getty
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No one will die of a snakebite in Britain this summer. Why?

The most recent snakebite death in the UK was in 1975. If only that were true elsewhere: snakebites kill up to 94,000 people and necessitate hundreds of thousands of amputations every year.

Here’s a prediction for the summer that’s much more reliable than anything you’ll get from the Met Office: in Britain, no one will die of a snakebite. The only venomous snakes on these shores are adders. Not only are their numbers in decline but they are timid and bite as a last resort. Each year, roughly a hundred people are bitten by adders in the UK but as few as 12 people have died in the past century as a result. The most recent death was in 1975.

If only that were true elsewhere. Snakebites kill up to 94,000 people and necessitate hundreds of thousands of amputations every year. Children and young people are most likely to be bitten and in some countries snakes kill as many people as Aids. Globally, the number of fatalities is up to 30 times that of landmines.

One of the biggest problems in treating snakebite is recognising which antivenom is needed. The mechanism by which the venom causes paralysis varies from species to species and giving the wrong antivenom can be worse than useless. Often, victims have to wait for the results of blood tests before the appropriate antivenom can be identified. But research published last month in the Journal of Tropical Medicine shows that it might be possible to create a universal antivenom that can be administered straight away as a simple nasal spray.

Before this paper was published, the universal antivenom neostigmine had already passed a couple of tests. In 2013, researchers injected a volunteer with a venom mimic, which caused a creeping paralysis that moved from the eyes to the diaphragm, causing difficulty in breathing. Twenty minutes after administration of the neostigmine nasal spray, the patient had completely recovered.

The second test was not a controlled experiment. It was carried out on a woman who was hooked up to a life-support machine after a snakebite in India. She had received 30
doses of antivenom but still had facial paralysis. The nasal spray relieved this after 30 minutes. Two weeks later, she was back at work.

In the latest study, mice were the unfortunate victims. They were given a lethal dose of cobra venom, followed by a single nasal dose of neostigmine ten minutes later. Two-thirds survived. The spray also allowed mice given ten times the lethal dose of cobra venom to survive six times longer than they otherwise would have. This suggests that even when it is not an instant cure, the spray could give people time to get to a hospital.

There’s still a long way to go, however. The researchers weren’t able to check the effectiveness of the nasal spray against different kinds of venom due to “limitations of funding”. Of even more concern is their admission that: “Both the efficacy and optimal uses of . . . therapies for neurotoxic snakebite remain unproven even after decades of widespread use.” In other words, hospitals have antivenoms but nobody is doing the studies that will show us how best to use them and how effective they are.

That’s almost certainly because 98 per cent of snakebite victims live in poverty, and treatment (and thus research) is largely paid by the victims or their family. Many bite victims are left disfigured or unable to work because of amputation or permanent paralysis and have to take out loans, sell livestock or crops and even pull their children out of school to get the cash they need. The World Health Organisation has called snakebites a “neglected threat to public health”. It is time for that neglect to end.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

Photo: Tashphotography / Stockimo / Alamy
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The Negroni fools no one – it’s easy to make and contains nothing but booze

It is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

The cocktail is designed to lie about its origins; no wonder it reached its apogee during Prohibition, which forced everyone with an unrepentant thirst to lie about their cravings. Even today, when only extreme youth, religious belief or personal inclination prevents a person from draining the bar dry, the cocktail continues its career of dishonesty. It hides ingredients or methods. It provides a front for poor-quality booze. And it often dissolves, within its inscrutable depths, mountains of sugar, enabling drinkers to pose as sophisticates while downing something that tastes like a soft drink – to get drunk without leaving the playpen.

This is why I love the Negroni, which fools no one. It is easy to make and contains nothing but pure booze. Despite being a third sweet vermouth, it isn’t saccharine: the other two thirds, equal measures of gin and Campari, may have something to do with this. And it is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

They say it was invented in Florence at the request of a Count Negroni, who wanted a drink unsullied by club soda – a drink stiff enough to get a man back on a bucking horse, perhaps, since this Count may have been a rodeo rider. I prefer to believe that the Count, if Count he was, came in, tossed down enough strong liquor to start telling stories about his American adventures, and, when he finally staggered out into the night, the exasperated bartender poured three straight shots into a single glass and baptised this wondrous reviver in grateful homage to the fabulist who had inspired it.

In a former glue factory a very long way from Florence or America, the East London Liquor Company now makes very good gin – Batches One and Two, the former tannic with Darjeeling as well as cassia bark, pink grapefruit peel, and coriander seeds; the latter redolent of savoury, bay, thyme and lavender. Transforming these plants into excellent alcohol seems an improvement on boiling down horses for adhesive, and the company also makes superb Negronis from Batch Two.

We sit outside, in a carpark made marginally more glamorous by border boxes of Batch Two botanicals, and marvel at the transformation of this grimy part of East London, next door to a park intended to give Victorian working men brief respite from lives all too lacking in myth or fantasy. It is a reincarnation at least as miraculous as the transformation of three strong and entirely unalike spirits into the delectable harmony of the Negroni. The sun shines; a fountain plashes. Nuts and charcuterie arrive. All is right with the world.

I leave my herbaceous bower and dangerously pleasing drink for a peek at the large copper distillery behind the bar, walking in past the fountain, a whimsical stone construction that pours vermilion liquid into two, tiered basins topped by a chubby putto clutching a rather reluctant fish.

And then I stop. And double back. Vermilion liquid? It is, indeed, a Negroni fountain. There are even slices of orange floating in the basin. I dip a finger: the taste is slightly metallic but still undeniably that potent mixture of booze, botanicals, bitterness, and just a hint of sweetness. A streak of citrus from the orange slices. It turns out that the world’s most straightforward cocktail lends itself to a decadent neo-Renaissance fantasy. There’s a message here, one forthright as a temperance tract: without imagination, we would have no lies – but no Negronis, either.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder