VALLEY FALLS, New York — Snake envenomation, or illness caused by the venom of a snake, is not a topic that often gains the attention of the media despite posing a serious global health issue. According to the World Health Organization, between 81,000 and 138,000 people die from snake bites every year around the world. Advances in snakebite treatment aim to address this issue.
The Impact of Snake Bites in Developing Nations
Snake bites disproportionately impact lower-income countries. The WHO provides the example of Australia, where there are only two snakebite deaths annually, compared with the developing country of New Guinea, where there are 1,000 of these deaths. The two nations have “almost identical” species of snakes; economic status accounts for the difference.
The consequence of snake bites more severely impact lower-income people and those who live in rural areas. Globally, the WHO reports that people working in agriculture as well as “people living in poorly constructed homes” are most at risk of snake bites. In India, most snake bites take place in the countryside, where snakes and people often come into contact, according to the nonprofit Indian Snakebite Initiative.
The Hefty Cost of Antivenom
People with lower incomes have more difficulty accessing and paying for snakebite treatment, which usually involves the use of antivenom. An antivenom solution comes about by introducing venom into animals and then transferring the antibodies that the animals develop to humans. However, some companies have stopped making antivenom because they do not bring in significant profit and other suppliers have set their prices prohibitively high.
In 2020, The New York Times reported that the price of a single “vial of antivenom” was $2,000. Snakebite treatment can leave people in debt and those who are disabled by the bite may have difficulty making a living. Aside from the expense, the antivenom treatment system has other flaws. For the most part, only an antivenom specific to a type of snake can treat snake bites from a specific snake. Antivenoms sometimes require cold storage to “maintain [their]integrity,” which is not always possible when delivering to “rural and remote areas,” the WHO states. Due to “weaknesses in some regulatory systems,” some antivenoms circulating are “ineffective or incorrect.”
Scientists are working hard to solve these problems, and in recent years, several solutions have emerged. In May 2016, National Geographic covered a group of researchers in Thailand who created an antivenom that could treat bites from 18 different snakes. When tested on mice, the antivenom saved all the mice, although, as of May 2016, the antivenom still needed further testing before becoming permissible for human use. The researchers’ goal was for the antivenom to be “affordable and easily accessible,” and therefore, researchers expressed their intention to refrain from patenting it.
Other researchers have been pursuing different ways of making antivenom. Obtaining the particular snake venom to produce antivenom can be difficult. To find a way around this issue, Paulo Lee Ho and other scientists in Brazil tried giving mice “small pieces of coral-snake DNA that code for venom toxins,” according to an April 2016 Nature article. Later, when the mice were given “a lethal dose of coral snake venom,” 60% lived. This outcome indicates that this path to making antivenom certainly has potential, but still needs more work.
A Potential Drug
There are also advances occurring outside the realm of antivenom improvement. In May 2020, a group of scientists published their findings of a drug that “saved or extended the lives of mice injected with lethal doses of viper venom,” according to Science News. This drug actually treats “heavy metal poisoning.” However, some snake venoms “rely on zinc ions to function,” said biomedical scientist Nicholas Casewell to Science News. The drug can “bind up” those ions so the venom cannot use them, which translates to more time for a person bitten by a snake to seek a place with antivenom treatment.
In India, apps are educating people about snakes while making snakebite treatment more accessible and protecting the snakes at the same time, according to a July 2021 article by The Guardian. For example, Google Play describes the app SERPENT as an application containing a “digital field guide” with snake pictures and a “live help” feature so people can contact experts for assistance. Importantly, in the case of snake bites, there is a “locate a hospital” tool that allows app users to view “the nearest hospital where snake bite can be treated.” Users can also report the presence of snakes, contributing to a map of “various species of snakes across India.” There are educational resources available on the app as well.
The SERPENT is just one of an array of similar apps. Behind them are “a network of volunteers managed by local wildlife departments,” The Guardian reports. Vijay Neelakantan, who founded the Kannur Wildlife Rescuers, explained in an interview with The Guardian that the group contains “37 certified rescuers who are also conducting sensitization campaigns among villages about conservation, snake types and what to do in emergencies.” Rescuers encourage people to avoid harming snakes and to call rescuers to safely deal with the animals.
In 2019, the WHO set the goal of decreasing the number of people killed or disabled by snake bites by 50% by 2030. With nine more years to accomplish this goal, snake apps, new antivenoms, new methods of making antivenom and snakebite treatment drugs could all help accomplish this goal.
– Victoria Albert