Poison centre's cases run to drug overdoses ... and spitting cobras

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 February, 2010, 12:00am

If you see a cobra in the wild with its head up in that characteristic pose, don't look it in the eye or you could get a stream of venom in your own eye. That's the warning from the case of a 50-year-old hiker, as reported to the Hospital Authority Poison Information Centre.

Dr Lau Fei-lung, the centre's director, said the snake, which was one metre from the man, spat poison into his left eye. Cobras can spit poison up to five metres, Lau said.

While the poison is not harmful to the skin, it can cause corneal ulcers and conjunctivitis in the eye and, at worst, blindness. But the hiker was fortunate - he recovered the next day.

Anyone in a similar plight should wash the eye with water immediately then use eyedrops, Lau said.

The centre, which co-ordinates and analyses poisoning cases in Hong Kong, received 4,342 reports last year, 3.6 per cent of them caused by animals or insects.

The centre has seen an increase in poisoning cases since its establishment in July 2005. Last year's case list was 7.8 per cent more than 2008, which was up 42 per cent from 2007. Poisonings resulted in 33 deaths last year, 40 in 2008 and 20 in 2007. About 5 per cent of the cases led to serious complications, such as brain damage after carbon monoxide poisoning. Two-thirds were drug poisonings, such as suicide attempts from sleeping pills and painkillers, Lau said.

More than 10 per cent arose from drug abuse, such as overdoses of ketamine. Five per cent were caused by Chinese medicine and household products, such as detergent.

Lau said more people were abusing a type of sleeping pill called Zopiclone, as it could be bought without a prescription. 'Hongkongers don't get enough sleep, so more people are becoming dependent on Zopiclone, which is lethal in a high dose.'

Although the number of reported cases was rising, it did not mean that more people were getting poisoned, he said.

'Instead, it is because more doctors are aware of our service, which has provided a treatment consultation service 24 hours a day since mid-2007.'

He reminded Hongkongers to maintain good ventilation when using bleaches to clean the house. 'If mixed with ammonia, it can emit a poisonous gas that will shrink the lungs,' he said.

Toxic shock

The Poison Information Centre received reports of 4,342 cases last year

That was 7.8 per cent higher than 2008, which was up from the previous year's caseload by: 42%