Snakebites: A Hidden Health Crisis Around the World

Snakebites are the cause of the world’s biggest hidden health crisis, according to U.K. biomedical research charity Wellcome Trust.

The World Health Organization estimates between 81,000 and 138,000 people are killed annually by snakebites, and roughly another 400,000 are left with life-altering disabilities, such as amputation.

“The burden of death and disability is greater than any other neglected tropical disease and equal to that of prostate or cervical cancer,” according to Wellcome Trust.

Those most at risk of snakebites tend to live in rural areas of Asia, Africa and South America. And because the treatment for snakebites can be ineffective, expensive and inaccessible, many who are bitten don’t receive medical help — meaning the total number of snakebites internationally may be far higher than we are aware of.

Antivenom only exists for around 60 percent of the venomous snakes in the world, according to The Guardian. But each venomous snake species produces a unique cocktail of toxins that requires a specific antivenom. Antivenom is typically created by injecting large animals, such as horses, with small amounts of snake venom and then extracting antibodies they produce. This is an inefficient process that has remained largely unchanged for decades.

“Those you need in India may be quite different from Africa,” Julien Potet, a neglected tropical disease adviser, told The Guardian. “Snakes are different and venoms are different. Some species are not very well covered. That is a big problem the manufacturers have to address.”

It is fair to say, then, that it is definitely time for a change.

Wellcome Trust recently announced an investment of $100 million for snakebite research — the first substantial investment into this research in over a decade. In addition, the U.K. Department for International Development released around $11 million to fund the development of a universal snakebite antivenom. And WHO has created a snakebite strategy, aiming to halve the number of disabilities and deaths from snakebites by 2030.

“Snakebite is — or should be — a treatable condition,” Mike Turner, Wellcome director of science, said in a news release. “With access to the right antivenom there is a high chance of survival. While people will always be bitten by venomous snakes, there is no reason so many should die.”

David Lalloo, director of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, called Wellcome’s investment “transformational.”

“It will make an enormous difference,” Lalloo told Science magazine. “It builds the economic argument for manufacturers to invest in antivenom.”

From carpet vipers to cobras, venomous snakes have struck fear in people who know the consequences of their bites will be painful at best and fatal at worst. Even nonvenomous snakes are feared by association — and sometimes rightfully so. Just ask Jerel Haywood of Oklahoma, who was recently bitten by a bullsnake on his friend’s porch.

In the United States, venomous snakes bite between 7,000 and 8,000 people every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only about five people die from those bites, though without immediate medical assistance that number would be far higher. That’s the fate suffered by many people around the world.

With the Wellcome Trust and Department for International Development’s investments — and WHO’s new snakebite strategy — it seems the tide is turning on this hidden health crisis. And while being bitten by a venomous snake is not totally avoidable, these new measures should lead us to a future where a snakebite is no longer a death sentence.

Photo Credit: Fulvio Spada/Flickr

105 comments

Karen H
Karen H9 days ago

We've got a problem here in Florida where people have dumped unwanted Burmese pythons, rock pythons and anacondas in the Everglades. The species have begun mating, making a more lethal hybrid that is stronger, more aggressive, and much larger--over 14 feet. It was also recently found that female anacondas may be able to reproduce asexually when there are no males around to donate sperm.

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Leo C
Leo Custer12 days ago

Thanks for sharing!

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Ingo Schreiner
Ingo Schreiner18 days ago

thank you

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Angeles Madrazo
Angeles M23 days ago

Thank you

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Angeles Madrazo
Angeles M23 days ago

Thank you

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Sheri K
Sheri K25 days ago

Yep, must be a big problem in Britain. Yep, going to keep me awake at night when I'm not worrying about global warming, war, crime, car wrecks, mosquitos, disease, cancer, heart problems and all the other much more important problems in this world. You know who eats those disease ridden rats, mice, insects and etc? Yep, that would be those snakes.

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Victoria Salter
Victoria Salter25 days ago

Hi 👋,
This gives snakes 🐍 a bad name. I’ve heard that they don’t want to waste their venom on what they can’t eat, and they can’t eat humans, so they only bite humans as a last resort... This may not be true for all snake species (e.g anacondas), but they all have a right to be respected and not killed, hurt, harmed or badly distressed unnecessarily...
Please don’t kill snakes 🐍 or any other sentient beings unnecessarily.
Also, thoughts 💭 for the animals used in the production and any used in “research” for the antidotes...
Thank you 😊.

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Irene S
Irene S25 days ago

Not around the whole world! In Northern or Central Europe lives only one kind of poisonous snakes and this one is very rare and shy. So it would take great effort to get bitten. Some people manage, but it´s not worse than bee bites.

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Richard B
Richard B25 days ago

thank you

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Hui S
Hui S26 days ago

thank you for sharing!

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