Shots - Health Blog
4:55 pm
Tue December 6, 2011

Snakebite Threat Gets Short Shrift

If you're poor and living in the Indian countryside, there's a life-threatening problem that can slither right into your life — a poisonous snake.

Snakebites in India are thought to have killed nearly 46,000 people alone in 2005. But the toll in India (the unfortunate leader of the snakebitten pack), Bangladesh and other countries that have lots of people and lots of poisonous snakes in close proximity hasn't been fully appreciated.

"It's really a big problem for rural areas in tropical and subtropical developing countries," says Ulrich Kuch, head of the Emerging and Neglected Tropical Diseases Unit at the Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre in Frankfurt, Germany.

Somewhere between 20,000 and 125,000 people a year die from snakebites, according to a data roundup in 2010. From 420,000 to more than 2.6 million people are bitten each year.

Precise statistics on the deaths and injuries from snakebites are hard to come by, however. Many people go untreated or are cared for by traditional healers. Either way their cases may not get counted by officials.

But even at the low end of estimates, deaths from snakebites would exceed those from better-known scourges, such as cholera, dengue fever and Chagas disease.

That's why specialists working on the problem called for action during a symposium at a meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene this week.

Snakebite injuries don't rank highly on lists of global health priorities, but they should, Kuch says. They have a "huge effect on the impoverished" in developing countries around the world. Farmers and others who work outdoors are at particular risk. Some snakes, such as kraits, may get into houses and cause trouble, especially at night.

"Anybody who has a mandate in global health from supernational organizations down to grassroots initiatives in the regions" needs to get involved, Kuch tells Shots. "The necessary know-how and tools are really in our hands to tackle this," he says.

Some priorities: getting the right kinds of antivenom to the places where people are bitten and training nontraditional medical personnel in administering the antidotes.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.