Global push to halve snakebite deaths: MSF calls on Canberra to pitch in

23 May 2019

MSF welcomes release of WHO strategy but warns it will require urgent attention from governments and donors to implement, including the government of Australia


Arop Magut was bitten on the leg by a snake while harvesting sorghum in the flooded fields. He arrived at our hospital in Agok, South Sudan five days after the bite and has had five operations so far. © Fanny Hostettler / MSF

Quick Summary

  • Worldwide, 5.4 million people are bitten by snakes each year;
  • Snakebite is often curable, but most people in the world can’t access effective treatment;
  • Some companies have stopped producing antivenoms for Africa because profit margins are too low;
  • MSF admitted more than 3,000 patients to its clinics for snakebite in 2017, predominantly in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.


WHO Strategy on Snakebite Envenoming

We welcome the release today of the long-anticipated World Health Organization (WHO) strategy on the prevention and control of snakebite envenoming, with the ambitious target of a 50 percent reduction in the number of snakebite deaths and cases of disability by 2030.

“We are cautiously optimistic that the WHO’s snakebite strategy could be a turning point in tackling this disease. Governments, donors and other stakeholders must not squander this opportunity, but instead provide concrete political and financial support to ensure its success.”

Julien Potet
Policy Advisor on Neglected Tropical Diseases for MSF’s Access Campaign

Governments and funding organisations must step up now and respond to snakebite with the urgency and attention this neglected public health crisis demands. Antivenoms must become available and free-of-charge to people affected by snakebite, for whom access is a matter of life or death. We’ve already begun speaking with the Australian Department of Health and Department of Foreign Affairs to urge the government to join the global fight against snakebite.

Every year, an estimated  2.7 million people are ‘envenomed’ by snakebites i.e. injected with toxins. This results in death for more than 100,000 people and life-long disfigurement and disability for 400,000 more. The rural poor are most affected. The majority of snakebite patients treated by us were in Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Yemen. We also treated significant numbers of people in Tanzania, Kenya, Cameroon, Sudan and Sierra Leone.

Attempts to tackle the crisis over the last three decades have failed, and to date, the domestic and international funds currently allocated by governments and donors have been grossly insufficient.


Lack of access to effective snakebite treatment

Although snakebite is curable, few victims can access effective treatment. Antivenom is expensive, often unavailable, and referral or ambulance services and trained health workers are lacking in areas most affected. People are often lured into purchasing unproven traditional therapies or cheaper antivenom products of questionable quality, contributing to the high rate of death and disability.

The supply of antivenom to the countries that need it most has also been put at risk by the recent decision of several pharmaceutical corporations to stop the production of antivenoms intended for use in Africa because the products weren’t sufficiently lucrative. To ensure access to affordable, quality-assured antivenoms, the effectiveness of existing products must be urgently assessed, and additional funds must be pledged to develop an international mechanism to subsidise and guarantee a stable supply of antivenoms.

We hope to see the Australian government announce a significant contribution to the WHO plan, and make a real difference to the lives of patients struggling with the impact of snakebite. “Many more lives could be saved if all snakebite victims had access to timely and appropriate care, including antivenoms,” Potet concluded.