The battle to contain Africa's hidden killers

Story highlights

  • Venomous snakes kill tens of thousands in sub-Saharan Africa
  • Public health experts say the problem has been neglected
  • WHO is developing a plan of action to tackle snakebite crisis

(CNN)Rainy seasons in Nigeria bring out venomous snakes, which emerge from their shelters to hunt and breed.

This is always a hazardous time, particularly for agricultural workers tending their fields, and this autumn proved especially cruel.
Around 250 people were reportedly killed over a three-week period in the central states of Gombe and Plateau, in a crisis that overwhelmed local doctors and prompted a national outcry.
    The case was extreme, but not unique. Nigeria is among the countries worst affected by what some public health experts are calling an epidemic.
    Sub-Saharan Africa is home to many of the world's deadliest snakes, including the black mamba and the carpet viper, and they exact a terrible toll. An estimated 32,000 people in the region are killed each year by snakebites, and a further 100,000 are left disabled, often by severe injuries that require limb amputations.
    But despite the scale of the crisis, specialists in the field say the response has been sorely lacking.
    A girl is treated for a snake bite at a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) clinic in Leer County, South Sudan.

    Neglected crisis

    Casualty statistics for sub-Saharan Africa are almost certainly underestimates, as many victims are never recorded.
    "Information from health centers is limited to patients who attended the clinic or hospital, which is half of the total patients or less," says Dr. Jean-Philippe Chippaux, a leading venom expert and founder of the African Society of Venomology (ASV).
    Part of the reason for this is that some victims prefer to visit traditional healers, says Chippaux, which can be a fatal decision as fast-acting venom can kill within hours.
    Another is that isolated communities struggle to access medical facilities with specialist staff trained to diagnose and treat snakebites.
    "This is a disease involving the poorest farmers...for which the treatment is expensive and poorly understood by the health authorities, health personnel and populations," says Chippaux. "In these conditions, it does not appear on the agenda of health authorities."
    A snakebite victim with an amputated leg on the banks of the Pibor River in Jonglei State, South Sudan.
    Chippaux says neglect manifests in a "lack of interest in the issue" among governments across the region.
    "Diagnosis and treatment of snakebites are no longer taught in medical and nursing schools. No country has a strategy for combating envenomation. There is no policy for selecting and distributing antivenoms."
    The lack of resources and expertise often results in patients receiving the wrong antivenom, says Thea Litschka-Koen, a businesswoman who established the Swaziland Antivenom Foundation to provide treatment and public education.
    "There is a massive problem of fridges stocked with products that shouldn't be there," she says. "Either they are inadequate or don't cover the right species. They might be cheaper but they won't neutralize venom or save lives."
    Litschka-Koen agrees that neglect is at the heart of the crisis.
    "Snakebite is a grossly and tragically neglected disease because it affects poor people who have no voice," she says.
    The lower leg of a Kenyan man bitten by a puff adder.