Our health report for this week discussed steps urged to prevent snakebites and improve treatments. About 5.5 million people a year are bitten. The World Health Organization now recognizes snakebite as a neglected tropical disease.
Snakes bite an estimated five and a half million people worldwide each year. Experts say tens of thousands of people die from venom poisoning.
An untreated or incorrectly treated bite might require the removal of a bitten foot, for example, or an arm. Each year around four hundred thousand amputations are the result of snakebites. Last year, for the first time, the World Health Organization added snakebites to its list of "neglected tropical diseases." This recognition aims to bring greater attention to the problem.
Scientists know of about three thousand kinds of snakes. About six hundred of them are venomous. These are most often found in rural areas in tropical climates. Asia and Africa have the highest number of snakebites -- together about four million a year. Latin America and islands in the South Pacific follow. The highest number of victims are agricultural workers.
Snakebites are also common among fishermen, hunters and children. Many victims live in areas with poor or non-existent health care systems and where antivenom treatments are often not available. Antivenom is the only cure. But experts say antivenom technologies and their use need to be improved. Problems include a shortage of manufacturers and the high cost of treatment.
Also, there is a widespread lack of knowledge among local health workers about how to use antivenoms. The treatments can cause dangerous and even deadly reactions if not used carefully.
Antivenom contains proteins from animals such as horses or sheep. The animals are injected repeatedly with one or more different snake venoms to produce immunity. The Lancet medical journal recently published a series of reports on snakebite prevention and treatment.
The authors say community education programs could help prevent snakebites by teaching people how to avoid them. They also suggest actions like providing protective boots to wear while working in fields, and not sleeping on the ground. Also important is providing information about where dangerous snakes are most likely to live and when they are most active.