Deaths due to snakebite get attention at World Health Assembly

Nearly, half of all snakebite deaths in the world happen in India

Representational image | AFP Representational image | AFP

Last night, the World Health Assembly (WHA) passed a resolution on a much lesser-known public health concern—deaths due to snakebite. India, where nearly half of all these deaths in the world take place, co-sponsored the resolution, along with other countries.

According to the WHO, snakebite envenoming is a “potentially life-threatening disease” resulting from the injection of a mixture of different toxins (venom) following the bite of a venomous snake. In humans and animals, snakebite envenoming affects multiple organ systems (depending on the particular species of snake and the classes of toxins present in the venom) and can cause, among other things, haemorrhage and prolonged disruption of haemostasis, neuromuscular paralysis, tissue necrosis, myolysis (muscle degeneration) and cardiotoxicity.

Every year, about 45,900 people die from snakebites in India, say experts. Worldwide, "snakebite envenoming" kills an estimated 1,00,000 people annually, making it one of the deadliest neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), according to Meìdecins Sans FrontieÌres (MSF), an organisation that works with victims of snakebites in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

“Too many people die or become disabled because they were unfortunate enough to have been bitten by a snake, and can’t access effective and affordable treatment. We are encouraged to see that governments are finally getting serious about tackling snakebite. It's a major killer that has remained one of the world’s most neglected public health emergencies for far too long,” said Julien Potet, policy adviser (NTDs, Vaccines), MSF Access Campaign. “Passing a resolution means that snakebite will now be on both national and international health agendas, and governments now need to make concrete commitments,” Potet said.

According to the WHO resolution, victims of snakebites require a range of health services, including immunotherapy treatment with anti-venom properties. Though antivenom neutralises accessible venom components, it does not reverse damage. Effective treatment includes antivenom administration plus supplementary medical interventions such as cardiorespiratory and, or, fluid resuscitation; airway intubation; mechanical ventilation; haemodialysis; wound debridement and reconstructive surgery; physiotherapy; and other rehabilitation services.

Last year, the WHO included snakebite envenoming in the list of neglected tropical diseases.

India, said Potet, has been a champion against some NTDs like kala azar or yaws. “It would be great if India could also become a champion against snakebites, given the high burden of snakebite victims. Several major antivenom manufacturers are also based out of India, and supply antivenoms to address needs both at home and abroad. Those are all good reasons to encourage the government of India to be further engaged against snakebites," said Potet.