Thousands die from snakebite each year as anti-venom treatment out of reach

Snakebite claims thousands of lives in the world's poorest communities every year but remains a 'forgotten killer',according to a new editorial published in the British Medical Journal.

University of Melbourne researcher Doctor David Williams, who heads up the Australian Venom Research Unit, has urged governments to take snakebite seriously and says the World Health Organization (WHO) must re-list snake bite as a tropical disease.

In Australia, venomous snakes outnumber non-venomous snakes. Around 600 people are hospitalised with bites every year, yet deaths are remarkably rare. This is due to the extremely high standard of health care and the provision of affordable antivenom at every major hospital.

In Africa, Asia, Latin America, and parts of Oceania, envenoming after snakebite is a serious public health problem. Between 1.2 and 5.5 million people suffer snakebites every year, resulting in 25,000 to 125,000 deaths and leaving approximately 400,000 victims with permanent injuries.

Dr Williams says antivenom is still not widely available to people who need it most and even when it is, it is far too expensive and contributes to the cycle of poverty. Antivenom costs around $56 to $640 per dose.

The concerns come as one of the biggest antivenom manufacturers in the world, Sanofi-Pasteur, ceases production in sub-Sahara Africa. However, experts say the most at-risk citizens in this part of the world cannot afford this treatment regardless.

Dr Williams says for decades, there have been chronic gaps in antivenom supply that have 'cost millions of lives'. He said efforts to drive change have failed and lack expertise within national regulatory bodies has opened the door for counterfeit treatments.  

In Ghana, the replacement of an effective antivenom with an alternative resulted in fatality increasing from 2 per cent to 12 per cent. In Chad, unsafe antivenom has resulted in fatality reaching 15 per cent.

"Health ministries in nations where snake bite is felt most acutely, including countries in Asia and Papua New Guinea and Africa, can no longer ignore their responsibility to their citizens," Dr Williams says.

"For decades there have been chronic gaps in antivenom supply globally that have cumulatively cost millions of lives, maimed millions more and contributed to the burden of poverty.

"The WHO must re-elevate snake bite to its list of neglected tropical diseases, rather than referring to it as a neglected condition, and member States must fund direct action by WHO to produce lasting solutions."

This article originally appeared in The Melbourne Newsroom on 28 October. Click here to view the original article.

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