The number of people killed each year by snake bites will skyrocket as pharmaceutical companies scale back their production of snake antivenom, according to experts.
Each year, snake bites kill 100,000 people and injure more than 400,000, with most of the victims being poor and living in rural Africa and Asia. Most are children. Many of the deaths to date are due to the fact that antivenom is already expensive for these people, but it’s not price increases that will lead to the dramatic incline of snake bite deaths.
Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) is warning that the only effective snakebite antivenom available in sub-Saharan Africa has been pulled by its manufacturer, Sanofi-Pasteur. This will leave millions without a treatment. Existing supplies of the antivenom FAV-Afrique are expected to run out by mid 2016.
Sanofi-Pasteur says it can no longer afford to manufacture the antivenom because producers of "ineffective antivenoms from emerging economies" are "undermining" its sales.
The company claims it has tried to "give away" production of the medication but this has not succeeded. Company spokesperson Julia Jara says negotiations are ongoing, but she can not give details because of “strict confidentiality.”
In a lead editorial in its latest edition, The British Medical Journal says the removal of the FAV-Afrique antivenom is "only symptomatic of long-term neglect on the part of international donors in addressing snakebites”. It reads, “Experts have been urging the relevant authorities (for decades) to redress this denial of access to an essential medicine, without any meaningful response."
Australian snake expert Dr. David Williams, says the main reason for the lack of interest by authorities is because snakebites are not infectious. “Unlike Ebola, they aren’t going to be arriving in New York anytime soon,” he says. Williams adds that unlike malaria, for which scientists hope to have a vaccine one day, snakebites requires a “number of different antivenoms depending on snake species and geography.”
Warrell says authorities and humane groups need to treat the absence of antivenoms in the same way they have responded to malaria. He says what is needed is “a big chunk of money to reduce the price (of FAV-Afrique) down to something reasonable, in the same way that has been done for the expanded program on immunization or bednets for malaria.”
“It’s a long, grinding tragedy,” he said. “Real action is long overdue.”