Snakebites declared world’s biggest hidden health crisis

A multimillion-pound programme has been launched to improve treatment for snakebites, which are thought to kill up to 138,000 people each year.

Scientists said research is urgently needed into the problem as they described snake bites as the world’s biggest hidden health crisis.

Snakebites are treatable but doing so can be expensive, and experts say ineffective antivenom medicines, often in less developed countries, mean people living in the world’s poorest places are worst affected.

Wellcome, the London-based independent global charitable foundation, has announced £80 million in funding for a new programme to focus on changing the way treatments are researched and delivered.

Snakebites are thought to kill up to 138,000 people each year (Nick Ballon/Wellcome Trust/PA)
Snakebites are thought to kill up to 138,000 people each year (Nick Ballon/Wellcome Trust/PA)

Current methods to make antivenom – using antibodies extracted from horses – have not changed since the 19th century and lead to a high risk of contamination and adverse reaction in patients.

Of people who survive venomous bites each year, 400,000 suffer life-changing injuries including amputations.

Deaths are rare in countries like the US and Australia where health systems are good and antivenom stockpiles are available, and the worst affected people are usually in rural Africa, Asia and South America.

The new programme aims to work with producers to make antivenoms better, safer and cheaper and make snakebite treatment a global health priority.

The investment comes as the World Health Organisation (Who) prepares to publish its first strategy on the problem next week, which aims to halve death and disability from snakebite by 2030.

Professor Mike Turner, director of science at Wellcome, said: “Snakebite is – or should be – a treatable condition. With access to the right antivenom there is a high chance of survival. While people will always be bitten by venomous snakes, there is no reason so many should die.

“Treatment has progressed little in the last century, and is too rarely accessible, safe and effective in the places where it is needed the most.

“It’s an incredibly challenging issue – there has been almost no investment in snakebite research over the last decade – but it’s also one that is solvable with support from WHO, national governments, industry and other funders”

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