Urgent action needed to tackle snakebites in Africa

Baraka Rateng

Attacking viper / Atheris nitschei

Photo Source: BigStockPhoto

[NAIROBI] African governments must work harder to prevent and treat the one million snakebites that occur on the continent every year to prevent needless deaths and suffering, a conference has heard.

At the 69th World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, last month (23-28 May), experts observed that the situation of snakebite victims is dire in Sub-Saharan Africa. The conference heard that snakebites cause about half a million cases of life-threatening venom poisoning on the continent, with few resources available to treat victims.

“The recognition of the problem by the WHO has the potential to be the game-changer that drives innovation and discovery of better alternatives to the medicines we have today.”

Abdulrazaq Habib, Bayero University

Abdulrazaq Habib, professor of infectious and tropical diseases from Bayero University in Kano, Nigeria, says ] that science can greatly address snakebites: “New technologies for producing antivenoms that use DNA from snakes could revolutionise production and dramatically reduce costs of treatment,” he says.

Habib told the event that governments around the world should back research into snakebites to achieve critical mass.

“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.”

The conference heard that 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. In Nigeria, for example, there were 2,000 deaths and 2,360 amputations from snakebites in 2010 while Burkina Faso reports mortality rates of up to 75 for every 100,000 people a year.

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, the conference heard.

“Snakebites have 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 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, the conference heard.

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 underlined the need for WHO member states need to finance the organisation in leading the fight against the global snakebite burden.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.


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