Snake bite antidote in short supply

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Snake bite antidote in short supply

Stockpiles of one of the most effective antivenoms for sub-Saharan Africa are due to expire in June 2016

Tens of thousands of people will continue to die of snakebite unnecessarily unless the global health community takes action to ensure treatment and antivenom is made available, warns Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) ahead of a symposium taking place in Switzerland on Tuesday.

Snakebite is a major killer yet remains one of the world’s most neglected public health emergencies, the organization says.

Each year, an estimated five million people worldwide are bitten by snakes, of whom 100,000 die and 400,000 are permanently disabled. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, 30,000 people die from snakebite every year and an estimated 8,000 undergo amputations. The number of victims is likely to rise as existing stockpiles of one of the most effective antivenoms for sub-Saharan Africa are due to expire in June 2016.

“We are now facing a real crisis so why do governments, pharmaceutical companies and global health bodies slither away when we need them most?” said MSF Snakebite Medical Advisor, Dr Gabriel Alcoba. “Imagine how frightening it must be to be bitten by a snake – to feel the pain and venom spread through your body – knowing it may kill you and there is no treatment available or that you can’t afford to pay for it?”

Snakebite mainly affects people living in rural areas. With no health facilities nearby, and unable to afford expensive treatment, many either turn to traditional healers or don’t seek care at all. If available, antivenom treatment can cost up to US$250-500 per victim, representing the equivalent of four years of salary in the countries concerned.

Fav-Afrique, produced by French pharmaceutical company Sanofi, is the only antivenom that has been proven safe and effective to treat envenoming from different types of snakes across Sub-Saharan Africa. There are a few alternative similar antivenom products in Africa, but their effectiveness and safety have not been properly established. Sanofi ceased production of Fav-Afrique in 2014 and the last batch will expire in June 2016. No replacement product will be available for at least another two years.

“Until a replacement product to Fav-Afrique is available, we hope that Sanofi can start to generate the base material needed to produce Fav-Afrique, and then find suitable opportunities within their production capacity to refine it into antivenom,” said Julien Potet, Neglected Diseases Advisor for MSF’s Access Campaign.

The World Health Organization (WHO) should play a leading role to tackle snakebite as a public health issue, but is still considering it as a “neglected condition with no formal programme,” despite the high mortality levels.