Governments around the world plan to strike back harder at snakebite, a scourge that kills tens of thousands of people a year.
A World Health Organization (WHO) resolution raises the priority of improving snakebite prevention as well as access to effective and affordable antivenom. The measure was approved by 192 countries in late May.
The WHO estimates that venomous snakes bite 1.8 million to 2.7 million people a year, killing between 81,000 and 138,000 of them.
“For every person who dies following a snakebite, another four or five are left with disabilities such as blindness, restricted mobility or amputation, and post-traumatic stress disorder,” The WHO reports.
Snakebite envenoming is most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia, the WHO reports. People in rural, impoverished areas there and elsewhere are most at risk, challenged by poor or remote health systems, and limited diagnoses, ambulances and other emergency care – including reliable antivenom.
In sub-Saharan Africa, just 2 percent of people bitten by venomous snakes have access to appropriate antivenom, says Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the aid group also known as Doctors Without Borders.
“We need to know better the data [on] where most cases take place,” said Julien Potet, MSF’s policy adviser on neglected tropical diseases, speaking by phone last week from Geneva. “We need to better regulate the quality of the antivenoms, to distribute them accordingly in the areas of highest need” and to make them affordable, “because otherwise they [patients] will not be able to access the product.”
Potet pointed out that French pharmaceutical company Sanofi Pasteur has stopped manufacturing Fav-Afrique, the only serum known to effectively treat bites from some sub-Saharan African snakes. The last batches of the company’s serum expired in June 2016.
Production of the antivenom takes roughly two years, the in-Pharma Technologist website reported. It said the pharmaceutical company cited manufacturing costs, and competition from cheaper but less effective treatments, in its decision to stop producing Fav-Afrique.
MSF has estimated that the antivenom costs a patient $250 to $500 for treatment.
Sanofi Pasteur announced in January that it had agreed to divest its antivenom immunoglobulin range, which includes Fav-Afrique, to the U.K.-based firm MicroPharm.
“We hope this resolution will trigger some actions to better regulate the market … and to prioritize and subsidize” antivenom production and distribution, Potet said.
“Now we need to make sure this resolution is translated into a concrete, fully funded action plan,” he added.
A WHO working group is expected to offer recommendations on how governments can bolster data collection, training for health workers, access to care and support for effective antivenoms, according to Devex, a website aimed at the global development community. It said the group’s report is expected by Nov. 30.
Devex also reported that David Williams, the group’s chair, estimated “about $6 million was needed in 2018-2019 to prepare the recommendations, improve surveillance, deliver antivenoms, and address other technical and medical challenges.”