HOW JAAT CAME ABOUT
As Curator of the Nairobi Museum’s Snake Park in the 1960s, James Ashe advised doctors on probable ID of snakes that had bitten their current patient. He also assisted a venom research team from Glasgow to obtain their venom samples. There was a connection to the South African Vaccine Producers (SAVP).
1980 James started building a snake farm in Watamu, coastal Kenya (later called Bio-Ken (Kenya) Ltd.) He and wife Sanda shared their antivenom supplies and advice with people in the Watamu area but, as word spread, requests increased beyond the Farm’s small pockets. Close friends, especially Melinda Rees (now a Trustee) organised fund-raising events.
The Ashes would take a needful snakebite patient to one of several local clinics, suitable antivenom in hand, and remainwith them until certain that reasonable treatment was being given. It was in 1994 that Watamu’s first fully qualified doctor started up his own clinic, Dr. Eugene Erulu. He took real interest in learning about treatment of snakebites and came to the farm to learn how to recognise our local snakes. He treated successfully the first Black Mamba bite that came in to the Snake Farm.
In 1997 some doctors asked James to give them a talk about snakes and snakebites. He contacted Professor David Warrell who came to the Kenya from time to time in regard to malaria research at Kilifi just along the coast from Watamu. So the 1st Snakes and Snakebites conference was held that year. It was so appreciated that a 2nd one was arranged in 1999.
It was following this meeting that Simple Steps to Assist a Snakebite Patient was written, in booklet form, later compressed to a single-sheet format by a friend with computer skills. It has been translated into Kiswahili, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Arabic for use in many parts of Africa.
2001/2 Malindi District Hospital came under the charge of Dr. Anisa Omar who vastly improved the hospital and still found time to bring her first Green Mamba bite patient to Watamu by ambulance so that the Ashes could watch her administer the antivenom they had supplied. With the prompting of Prof. Warrell, Drs. Omar and Erulu were sponsored to attend a Toxinolgy course in Australia.
2003 On 7th December , thanks to DNA work by Dr. Wolfgang Wuster of UK, our local large Spitting Cobra was given new species status with the scientific name Naja ashei.
2004 at New Year, James was rushed to Mombasa with a violent ‘flu type virus doing the rounds and that was start of a steady decline in his health. Royjan Taylor (who had become a partner in Bio-Ken in 2002) had planned to start a registered charity to allow for wider fund-raising for antivenom, training and public education about snakebites. It was finally registered on 20th September, named The James Ashe Antivenom Trust. James died on 24th September. On 1st October the 4th Snakebite seminar was held, among the speakers being Professor Warrell, Wolfgang Wuster and Dr. Roger Blaylock representing SAVP. On the same day came the first delivery of JAAT’s Primary Medical Care of Snakebites booklet.
This IST World Congress fell over the starting time of JAAT and the 11th anniversary of the death of James Ashe. It seems so appropriate for Dr.Erulu, who had looked after James for so long and is a keen advocate for JAAT, presented a JAAT poster during his talk at the congress.
How it all began...
When James Ashe and his wife Sanda first came to set up Bio-Ken Snake Farm in Watamu many years ago, it was a risky business. They were in the middle of nowhere and dealing with many different and highly venomous snakes. Once they were settled they arranged to get hold of some antivenom, which they kept in their fridge. It was a costly, but necessary, addition to their first aid kit.
Meannwhile, local people had practically given up taking snakebite victims to hospital as there was no treatment and the mortality rate was very high. The people turned to their traditional witchdoctors for help. But soon the word spread that there was a snake farm in Watamu and bite victims started turning up on the Ashe’s doorstep desperate for help.
No one was ever turned away. If it was a non-venomous bite the victim was reassured and sent on his way. If it was a venomous bite, the victim, the antivenom and the Ashe’s would calmly get into the vehicle and get to the local clinic where Dr. Erulu would be waiting. Depending on many factors, such as the length of time since the bite, most survived.
The majority of snakebites in this area occur when people are out in the fields tending their crops or climbing trees to pick the fruit. These people are poor and there is no way they would be able to afford expensive medications such as antivenom. This became a problem as James and Sanda were treating people at their expense. James even settled an account once by accepting a basket of mangoes as payment for saving the child of a poor farmer!
One evening, James was discussing this with some friends over a beer at Ocean Sports (the local pub). It was decided that a ‘Harambee’ (fund raising) event be held among the local residents to help raise a kitty from which to buy the antivenom. This became unofficially named the ‘Watamu Antivenom Fund’ and was run from an ice cream container! From then on there were triathlons, local fair stalls and many other methods by which the fund got money.
In order to get the antivenom to Watamu the fund relied upon good willed travelers coming from South Africa. Before long though, the price of antivenom went up and, as word spread, more bites were coming in from further a field. At this point James Ashe and Sanda were joined by their long time friend and snake enthusiast Royjan Taylor, who suggested that a registered trust be formed in order to attract more substantial donations, set up a bank account and also to remain transparent for the revenue authorities. Royjan and Sanda were then joined by Melinda Rees and Shafiq Ebrahimjee of Watamu and Professor David Warrel of Oxford University as Trustees. It was agreed by the five Trustees in mid-2004 that it should be named after the man who started it all, THE JAMES ASHE ANTIVENOM TRUST or JAAT.
Since the formation of the trust (JAAT), it has gained huge support and recognition. It now holds a healthy stock of antivenom in a brand new fridge labeled ‘ANTIVENOM ONLY’.
Many lives and limbs have been saved, not only by the antivenom, but by the spreading of information on the correct first aid treatment and prevention of snakes. Sanda has written and distributed her ‘Simple Steps’ leaflet (which is available in many languages) all over Kenya. People are encouraged to take the leaflet, photocopy it and distribute it liberally. There is also a more detailed manual for snakebite treatment which is given to doctors providing they do the course with either Sanda or Royjan. It is thanks to JAAT that these manuals can be printed and these lessons given.
Please visit or contact us about donations or fund raising at:
James Ashe Antivenom Trust – (JAAT )
H.Q. & A.V. at Bio-Ken Snake Farm, Watamu
P.O. Boc 3, Watamu, Kenya. (P/Code 80202)
Tel : 00 254 718 290324
“Anti-venom is like the Texan’s gun. He doesn’t need it often, but when he needs it, he needs it real bad.” James Ashe
Meet The Team
Director and Trustee
Dr. David Williams
Supporter and partner
Dr. Eugene Erulu
Snakebite specialist and partner
Prof. David Warrell
Trustee and supporter