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The Snake Bite 'Crisis' And The Race To Find A Universal Antivenom

Snakebites kill as many as 140,000 people around the world each year, with and another 400,000 victims suffering major disabilities such as amputation.

On Thursday, a $150 million research program was launched to improve treatment for snakebites, in an area of medicine experts said is usually overlooked.

The Wellcome Trust charity in London announced the seven-year research program to improve antivenoms and search for new treatments.

“Snakebite is – or should be – a treatable condition," Mike Turner of the Wellcome Trust said.

The health burden -- which is greater than that of any of the 20 neglected tropical diseases tracked by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and is equal to that of prostate or cervical cancer -- is traditionally neglected by funding bodies.

A man's swollen hand after a snake bite. IMAGE: Getty Images

Medical researchers said funders are usually more interested in infectious diseases that can be prevented and eradicated.

"With access to the right antivenom there is a high chance of survival," Turner said.

"While people will always be bitten by venomous snakes, there is no reason so many should die."

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David Lalloo, a professor and director of Britain’s Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, said a dire lack of funding for scientific research had severely limited progress in this field of medicine, leaving thousands to die unnecessarily.

“Snakebite treatment is essentially reliant on a 100-year-old process,” he said.

The costly and laborious process sees antibodies harvested from horse blood to make anti-venom.

Antivenom exists for only 60 percent of all the snakes in the world and is often expensive or ineffective.

The inland taipan in central Australia. IMAGE: University if Melbourne

Philip Price, a specialist in snakebite science at Wellcome, called it a “hidden health crisis", and said venomous snakebites kill people mostly in the poor communities of Africa, Asia and South America.

The funding announcement comes ahead of the first-ever WHO snakebite strategy, set to be unveiled next week. The strategy seeks to halve death and disability from snakebites by 2030.

In Australia, there are about 3,000 snake bites per year, resulting in about 500 hospital admissions. About two bites per year will be fatal.

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About half the deaths are due to bites from the brown snake; the rest mostly from tiger snake, taipan and death adder, according to 2017 nationwide study, published in the Internal Medicine Journal.

Most people who die from snake bite in Australia are male, bitten in the warmer months of the year and more than half of the bites occur in or near the home.

IMAGE: Getty Images

Doctor Ronelle Welton, from the University of Melbourne's Australian Venom Research Unit told 10 daily while Australia is home to some of the most venomous snakes in the world they aren't necessarily the most dangerous.

"For example in India, snakes are seen as very dangerous, because people tend to walk barefoot around them, don't have access to public health services and many locals don't necessarily have first aid training," she said.

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Welton said if we want to know which snakes are the most problematic we should consider the global health, rather than individual impact.

She said while Australia is home to the inland taipan -- one of the fiercest and most venomous snakes in the world -- it isn't necessarily dangerous because it lives in isolation in semi-arid regions of central east Australia.

With Reuters.

Contact the author alattouf@networkten.com.au