It took only minutes for snake expert David Williams to feel the effect of being bitten by a deadly taipan. His breathing quickly became labored, and he could only urge his colleagues at the film shoot to hurry for the antidote before falling into a coma.
The Australian expert said dryly, saved by the prompt administration of a 1,800-dollar shot to counter the snake’s venom: “If I hadn’t got it, you would not be talking to me now, but digging my grave.”
The 2007 incident in Papua New Guinea ended happily for Williams, a leading anti-venom researcher.
The majority of cases are in developing countries, where such advanced treatments are seldom available. Some 100,000 people a year die from snakebites, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
With Williams’ support, WHO has now launched a campaign to tackle the shortage of approved anti-venoms by boosting their production and range of application while still ensuring the required standards.
Not all anti-venoms work for any bite. An Asian taipan’s bite, for example, can be countered only by one agent derived from venom of the same animal species. And serums made from the venom of Indian snakes have little effect in Africa, where up to 30,000 people die each year from bites.
Anti-venoms available in India are also of doubtful quality, contributing to the annual snakebite death toll of more than 50,000 people. Overall, the number of deaths globally is as high as for dengue fever, a disease that gets significantly more attention.
In response, WHO has started placing snakebites on the list of forgotten tropical diseases. This has increased attention paid to the misery caused and will hopefully help raise more funds in wealthy countries for the development of accessible treatments.
WHO is now working on guidelines for the safe production of effective medications and is also testing its own anti-venoms.
These are polyvalent, meaning they should be effective against bites from several types of snakes found in sub-Saharan Africa.
Nuebling explained that the first phase of the lab testing has been completed, and next there will be tests for effectiveness in mice.