One-shot vial to help villagers

A new snakebite antivenom could bring hope to thousands of victims.
This article originally appeared in Voice, Volume 11 Number 8. View the original here.
A new snakebite antivenom could bring hope to thousands of victims. By Christina Tait.
About 3600 people are bitten by venomous snakes in Papua New Guinea every year. For the 60 per cent bitten by potentially lethal snakes, anti-venom is far from guaranteed. 
These are some of the highest snakebite rates in the world, and in some regions snakebite deaths outnumber malaria and tuberculosis fatalities by 3:1. 
Most vulnerable are those in remote and isolated areas where vehicles are few and far between and the closest health centre can be a 15km walk away. 
Many of the health centres in these remote areas don't have electricity and the necessary refrigeration to stock antivenoms. For those that can, supplies are limited by cost and logistics. 
Estimates suggest that PNG has some of the highest snakebite mortality rates in the world, as high as 1000 a year, and in some regions snakebite deaths outnumber malaria and tuberculosis fatalities by up to 3:1.
Since he first encountered this problem in PNG years ago, Dr David Williams has been a man on a mission to produce an affordable single-dose antivenom. 
"In one of my early visits to PNG, four people died in one week at the village I was staying in, and witnessing how nothing could be done made me want to stick my neck out and do something," he says.  
The snake responsible for over 80 per cent of snakebite deaths in PNG is the Papuan taipan which is often shrouded in superstition by locals who believe that snakebite is a tool wielded against them by a vengeful sorcerer.
"It has the longest fangs, the most toxic venom and one of the largest venom yields of any snake in the Asia Pacific region," says Dr Williams. Children playing and women gardening or gathering firewood are often victims. 
"Within as little as 2-3 hours of being bitten, the victim can experience uncontrolled bleeding, paralysis and not be able to breathe or swallow. Without a ventilator to keep them breathing, they will die. Giving them antivenom before these effects occur can save many lives," he says.  
"When I first proposed developing a new taipan antivenom, many people told me that it was too costly and technically difficult in the PNG setting," he says.
However, fast forward to today and Dr Williams' mission is almost accomplished. 
A new antivenom could be registered for general use within 12-18 months if trials in Port Moresby's General Hospital are conclusive.
"This new antivenom will cost about US$150 per vial, compared with the existing antivenom which costs up to US$2000 per vial, and we are confident it can be stored without refrigeration in remote and isolated villages," Dr Williams says. 
"Making antivenom available more widely will reduce follow-on hospitalisation so that 95 per cent of snake bite patients can go home within 24 hours after their treatment," he says. 
"My vision is that within the next 5-10 years, we can help our PNG partners to produce their own antivenoms. This will provide employment for their upcoming scientists and enable them to solve their own public health issues," says Dr Williams. 
"It is a project that is outside the traditional research role and grant funding, however we are hopeful that we will be supported to continue," he says. 
Dr Williams is well-regarded internationally for his powerful advocacy for the plight of snakebite victims in the developing world.
"Snakebite is unfortunately a 'neglected tropical disease' that doesn't get much attention because it is not infectious, and is largely ignored in tropical disease initiatives," he says.
"Our work in PNG has been a good test case. We have taken one of the most lethal snakes in the world in a challenging setting and developed an affordable and sustainable solution which can be translated into other developing countries and save many lives," says Dr Williams.
Dr Williams currently heads Australian Venom Research at the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics at the University of Melbourne and the Charles Campbell Toxinology Centre at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences at the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby. He also manages the Snakebite Clinic in the Emergency Department at the Port Moresby General Hospital.
Visit: Al Jazeera 101 East, Papua New Guinea's Snake Man to view recent documentary