Connect to share and comment

Health: Snake bites are a forgotten global threat

The global death toll from snake bites — around 100,000 — could be far less if antivenom were more accessible.

The casualties are mostly women and farmers living in poor rural communities. A bite can cause bleeding, muscle paralysis, tissue destruction, kidney failure, permanent disability and death. Children are more severely hit because of their smaller body mass and need treatment immediately.

Combating the problem is difficult because of the dearth of information. After three years of organizing regional workshops to collect data, WHO has launched its first website with facts about the deadliest snakes in the world, their geographical presence, the suitable antivenom and where it can be found.

“Many countries have no access to the antivenoms they need. Others use antivenoms that have never been tested against their target snake venoms. So often when people get bitten, they can't get the treatment they need," said Carissa Etienne, WHO Assistant Director-General. “These new tools will help bring this to an end.”

For instance, the database shows the lethal sharp-nosed pit viper lives across China, Taiwan and parts of Vietnam and responds to the antivenom called Agkistrodon Acutus antivenin, which is manufactured by the Shanghai Institute of Biological Technology.

In another case, the South American rattle snake lives in most parts of the continent, and responds to multiple antivenoms being made in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Bolivia.

A virtual database, of course, is of little use to the villagers that tramp barefoot around in their fields without electricity but it is helpful to healthcare professionals and manufacturers, according to Padilla.

At present very few countries produce snake venoms of adequate quality. Knowing the location of the snakes is especially helpful for manufacturers of antivenom since they need the venom to put in the antidote.

Both training to treat snake bites and distribution of antivenom remains a major challenge.

“The medicines need to find a way out of the cities into the remote areas,” said Padilla. “We are pushing governments to put it in their national health programs.”

Meanwhile, ancestral wisdom prevails. Sometimes in India, when it isn’t clear if someone bitten by a snake is dead or in a coma, the body is not burnt — a traditional Hindu rite — but immersed in the river to allow for revival. “Many times after a few days they come back,” said Chauhan.

Betwa Sharma is the New York/United Nations correspondent for the Press Trust of India and is a freelance journalist.