WHO launches global snakebite strategy

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Friday, 24 May 2019

At an event at the World Health Assembly last night, WHO launched its global strategy for the control and prevention of snakebite envenoming.

We were happy to be in attendance to see years of collaboration come together in this comprehensive plan that looks to save thousands of lives around the world.

Snakebite affects between 1.8 and 2.7 million people each year, claiming 81,000–138,000 lives and causing 400,000 cases of permanent disability.

Big challenge is anti-venoms

Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at WHO, who spoke at the launch said:

“Most people who suffer from snakebite are rural farmers, they sleep on the floor and are bitten when snakes come in looking for food. Community and digital engagement are extremely important. Mobile phone technology should be used to inform people and for community education.


Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at WHO, speaking at the launch in Geneva. 

“We need research on setting up registries, documenting snakebite and cause of death, we need clinical management on snakebite and the biggest challenge is the avail of safe effective anti-venoms. We’re still using old methods that often require high doses and still may not work.”

Halve the number of deaths

The aim of WHO’s strategy is to halve the numbers of deaths and cases of disability due to snakebite over the next 12 years. The programme proposed targets affected communities and their health systems, as well as aiming to ensure access to safe, effective treatment through increased partnerships.

The strategy was developed by a 28-member panel of global experts in consultation with WHO regional offices, the scientific and research community, health foundations, advocacy groups and stakeholders, many of whom were present at the launch.

It places countries at the centre, sets priorities, focuses on outcomes and impact, and aligns with targets set out in the Sustainable Development Goals.

Dr Mwele Malecela, Director of NTDs at WHO officially launched the strategy and said:

“We have witnessed an explosion of interest in snakebite, which has brought the prospect of new technologies – there is much optimism. We knew we needed to focus this into a plan which includes community engagement, health systems, antivenom research and partnership.

“We need strong dynamic processes and partnerships and I hope many will invest in and commit to the implementation of the strategy. Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. The time to focus on snakebite is now.”

Communities at the centre of the response

A few main strands of work came through from launch, the first being the need to put communities at the centre of the response.

Prevention of snakebites is paramount, therefore improved community education and empowerment and effective first response will be a key focus of the strategy.

New and better treatment needed

Another pillar of the strategy as highlighted at the launch is the need to ensure access to safe, effective and affordable treatment such as antivenoms.

Improved and strengthened production, supply and distribution of life-saving antivenoms and other commodities needed to treat snakebites will be prioritised.


 © Nick Ballon / Wellcome Trust

WHO will also work to encourage research on new treatments, diagnostics and health device breakthroughs that can improve treatment outcomes for victims and hasten recovery.

Wellcome’s snakebite programme

The WHO launch comes one week after Wellcome announced a £80 million programme to transform the way snakebite treatments are researched and delivered.

Over the next seven years, Wellcome’s programme aims to modernise antivenom production, develop new treatments and make snakebite a global health priority.

Galvanising action

The need for collaboration was also a theme of the evening, with Ren Minghui, Assistant Director General for UHC/Communicable and Non-Communicable Diseases at WHO, saying:

“The strategy is truly owned by all of us and this joint ownership will result in success. It is feasible technically, technologically and financially.”

Next steps for RSTMH: International Snakebite Awareness Day

It was a great launch event with a lot of optimism and energy to tackling this problem which affects so many people around the world but, until recently, has been severely neglected.

Pioneers in the field, such as Professor David Warrell  a former RSTMH President and Dr David Williams from the University of Melbourne, were rightly given recognition for their sustained advocacy to get more attention to helping victims of snakebite, as well as their research into better and safer treatments.

The next step for us is to work collaboratively with partners who were in the room, including many NGOs, such as Health Action International and MSF.

This will include amplifying messages around fighting snakebite, calling for more research on the topic  on anti-venom and community engagement through our grants and journals, and planning for the next International Snakebite Awareness Day, which we established last year along with a number of partners and will take place on 19 September, coinciding with the 11th European Congress on Tropical Medicine and International Health in Liverpool.

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