If nothing is done, then by the middle of next year the world will run out of one of the safest and most effective treatments for snakebites. This could lead to tens of thousands of preventable deaths, warns the international medical organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which urges the global health community to take action in tackling one of the planet’s most neglected public health emergencies.
“We are now facing a real crisis,” said Dr Gabriel Alcoba, MSF snakebite medical advisor, in a statement. The anti-venom in question, called Fav-Afrique, is one of the most effective, treating 10 different snake bites that occur in sub-Saharan Africa. Manufacturer Sanofi Pasteur ceased production in 2014, and the last batch is due to expire in June 2016. Even with immediate action no replacement product would be available for at least two years. This could lead to countless deaths and amputations for those who cannot access the appropriate health care.
It’s thought that over five million people a year are bitten by snakes, out of which 100,000 will die and almost half a million will be permanently disabled. With such high figures, MSF has called on the World Health Organization (WHO) to take a leading role in tackling the problem, in addition to governments and pharmaceutical companies. At between $250-500 (£160-320) per victim, the treatment for snakebite can cost the equivalent of four years’ salary in the countries affected.
Sanofi Pasteur says it has been priced out of the market by cheaper competitors and is instead focusing on rabies treatments. But MSF warns that the safety and effectiveness of these alternatives have not yet been properly established. The pharmaceutical company announced its intention to stop making the product way back in 2010, and has offered to share its anti-venom recipe with others. “It’s very strange that the relevant stakeholders are only realising this problem five years later,” said Sanofi Pasteur spokesman Alain Bernal.
The main threat of this shortage is to those living in sub-Saharan Africa, where 30,000 people a year die from snake bites. Envenomation by snakes is primarily a problem for those in poorer rural populations, who already have a limited access to medicine, due to cost and remoteness. It is these communities that will bear the brunt of this lack of anti-venom.
Unfortunately, according to the WHO, donors are largely uninterested in funding snakebite programs.