Urgent action needed to tackle snakebites in Africa

twig snake
Copyright: Kris Pannecoucke / Panos

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  • Sub-Saharan Africa suffers from about one million snakebites a year
  • Africa’s rural dwellers including farmers, children and women are at higher risk
  • Funding, new technologies and treatments could help tackle the menace

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[NAIROBI] As many as one million snakebites occur in Sub-Saharan Africa yearly, thus requiring an urgent action to end deaths and sufferings, experts say.
At the 69th World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, last month (23-28 May), experts observed that the situation is dire in Sub-Saharan Africa.
And according to Abdulrazaq G. Habib, professor of infectious and tropical diseases from Bayero University in Kano, Nigeria, snakebites result in about 500,000 cases of envenoming or snake poisoning annually.

“Snakebite treatment can be clinically complex, and poor training has hindered progress.”

David Williams, Global Snakebite Initiative


Habib tells SciDev.Net that science can greatly address snakebites: “New technologies for producing antivenoms that use DNA from snakes for immunisation of host animals that make the antibodies … could revolutionise production and dramatically reduce costs of treatment.”
Habib adds: “While much of this research is in its infancy — held back by a lack of investment that is disproportionate to the burden of the problem around the world — the recognition of the problem by the World Health Organization and its member states has the potential to be the game-changer that drives innovation and discovery of better alternatives to the medicines we have today.”
Many victims do not have access to modern treatment in health centres or hospitals, and the reliance on traditional medicine, which is also often ineffective, is very high.
Habib explains that, for instance, in Nigeria, there were 2,000 deaths and 2,360 amputations from snakebite in 2010 while Burkina Faso reported an incidence from 1981-2000 of 238 per 100,000 people annually, with mortality rates of 60.4-74.8 for every 100,000 people a year.
David Williams, chief executive officer of the Global Snakebite Initiative, says research communities around the globe are capable of addressing the issue.
“Snakebite treatment can be clinically complex, and poor training has hindered progress, but the Global Snakebite Initiative has tool-ready interventions that will train and capacitate healthcare workers and communities in snakebite prevention and treatment,” he adds, noting that investments could revolutionise the treatment of snakebite envenoming within five to ten years.
Tim Reed, executive director of the Netherlands-based Health Action International, says that people living in rural areas account for at least 90 per cent of snakebite cases. Farmers and herdsmen suffer the greatest burden, accounting for about 60 to 75 per cent of cases. Children are also at greater risk.
 “Snakebite has not been adequately prioritised by governments or the broader public health community and this may, in part, be due to a lack of awareness by some governments,” Reed explains.

In addition, many snakebite victims are common among the poorest and least educated members of society, often living in remote and resource-poor areas, although agricultural workers and farmers are frequent victims.
According to Reed, African governments need support to introduce awareness-raising and community engagement in snakebite care. “This, however, can only work alongside policies that ensure a reliable and predictable framework of treatment availability, which includes quality-assured and appropriate antivenom.”
Reed charges donors and WHO member states need to finance the WHO in taking the leadership role in addressing the global snakebite burden.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.