Snakebites: a stubborn public health problem

By • Published: March 26th, 2012
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Imagine you’re a farmer in a remote area of Southeast Asia, working your field at dusk. Shadows are falling, and you don’t notice the snake coiled under a plant until you’ve stepped too close. It strikes, biting your foot, then slithers away. You didn’t see what kind of snake it is, but you know the area is home to many venomous species. You need to see a doctor, pronto. But how? The nearest one is five miles away, and you don’t have a car.

Similar scenarios unfold across the world countless times each year. Families dependent on hunting or small-scale farming and fishing for their livelihoods spend their days working outside in snake-friendly environments. Many lack the clothing recommended to protect against snakebites: tall, thick boots and long pants. Another practice common worldwide — sleeping on the floor in primitive huts or houses — also increases the risk of snakebite.

A bite from a venomous snake requires immediate medical attention. Correctly identifying the snake that inflicted the bite, transporting the victim to medical providers and having the right antivenom on hand all can be problems in developing countries or remote areas.

In 2009, the World Health Organization called for a greater focus on snakebites. Statistics show these injuries cause tens of thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of amputations yearly. But experts say the real numbers are larger. Many snakebites occur in isolated areas and are never reported.

On top of that, antivenoms are tough to make and can cause severe allergic reactions. Improving the prognosis for snakebite victims, wherever they live, will take serious work. Experts say providing better transportation to medical care and developing safer, more accessible treatments would be great ways to start.

Who wants to take on the challenge, scientists? The world’s poorest families need your help.