9 things you didn’t know about snakebite

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Monday, 4 December 2017

Of all the neglected tropical diseases or NTDs, snakebite might be the most neglected.

WHO recognised snakebite envenoming as a neglected tropical disease in June 2017 (after it was removed in 2013). However, the fight is not over for those vulnerable to snakebite, as funding and support to tackle this issue is still lacking.

To shine a light on snakebite envenoming, the Lillian Lincoln Foundation has made a documentary, Minutes to Die, directed by James Reid, to reveal the under-discussed reality of snakebite. Find the trailer here

A Russell's viper, a type of venomous snake, found across Asia.
A Russell's viper, a venomous snake, found across Asia. By Tathekalyani (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Here are some more facts about the little-known issue of snake envenoming.

  1. Snakebites cause far more deaths annually – between 94,000 and 125,000 – than many other, more well-known diseases on the WHO’s list of recognised NTDs, such as Leishmaniasis (20,000-30,000) or Dengue haemorrhagic fever (20,000). 
  2. In 26 months, the well-publicised Ebola crisis took as many lives as snakebite does in just one month, every month.
  3. Each year, more than 500,000 people 'suffer from lifelong disfigurement and amputations' or worse.
  4. There is evidence that 4.5–5.4 million people a year are bitten by snakes and that 1.8–2.7 million of them develop clinical illness (envenoming) after snakebite.
  5. Although there are currently more than 3,000 species of snakes in the world, approximately 250 of these are listed by WHO as being of medical importance because of the harm their venoms can do.
  6. Morbidity and mortality occur most frequently among people aged between 10 and 30 years – often the most economically productive members of a community.
  7. The majority of snakebite envenoming cases occur in tropical and sub-tropical regions of the developing world. As many as 46 000 snakebite deaths happen in India alone; sub-Saharan Africa, tropical Asia, New Guinea, and Central and South America are also snakebite hot spots.
  8. The socioeconomic impacts of snakebite for survivors and their families can be dire. In rural India, where 75% of people live on average monthly household incomes of just 5,000 rupees (US$ 78), immediate treatment costs after snakebites of more than 350,000 rupees (US$ 5,400) have been reported. 
  9. Antivenoms work by boosting our immune response after a snakebite. They are made by immunising donor animals such as horses or sheep with snake venoms. These animals have robust immune systems, and produce powerful antibodies that can bind to snake venom components, enabling our own immune defences to eliminate these toxins. Antivenoms are obtained by harvesting and then purifying the antibodies from plasma produced by the donor animal. Good-quality antivenoms can literally make a difference between life and death.


Snakebite envenomation turns again into a neglected tropical disease! 

WHO venomous snake distribution and species risk categories

WHO snake envenoming 

The Grassroots Journal 

Kofi Annan Foundation