New UN initiative aims to boost life-saving treatment for snake bites

The yellow Cryptelytrops insularis snake

4 May 2010 – The United Nations health agency is publishing new guidelines on treatment for venomous snake bites, which kill at least 100,000 people a year, while highlighting the critical need for appropriate, safe and effective antivenoms.

An estimated 5 million people are bitten each year, mostly women, children and farmers in poor rural areas where health systems are not well equipped and medical resources are lacking, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The new guidelines on the production, regulation and control of snake antivenoms are accompanied by a website detailing where the venomous snakes are located, what they look like, which antivenoms are appropriate, and where they can be obtained.

“Many countries have no access to the antivenoms they need. Others use antivenoms that have never been tested against their target snake venoms. So often when people get bitten, they can't get the treatment they need,” WHO Assistant Director-General Carissa Etienne stated in a news release.

“These new tools will help bring this to an end,” she added.

WHO pointed out that bites by venomous snakes can cause paralysis that may prevent breathing, bleeding disorders that can lead to fatal haemorrhage, irreversible kidney failure and severe tissue damage that can cause permanent disability and may result in amputation.

Several factors have led to the global shortage in snake antivenoms, including poor data on the number and type of snake bites. Also, some manufacturers have stopped producing or increased the prices of antivenoms due to difficulties in estimating needs and poor distribution policies.

In addition, poor regulation and marketing of inappropriate antivenoms has resulted in a loss of confidence in the available antivenoms by clinicians, public health officials and patients.

WHO stressed that effective and safe antivenoms requires global collaboration, and urged regulators, producers, researchers, clinicians, national and regional health authorities, international organizations and community groups to work together to improve the availability of reliable data on snake bites, the regulatory control of antivenoms and their distribution policies.

The new guidelines will, among other things, help public health officials in determining what antivenoms are needed in their country and in drafting relevant national public health policies, assist clinicians and health care professionals in treating snake bites, and increase awareness among the general population about venomous snakes living in their area.


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