The World Is Running Out Of A Critical Snakebite Antidote

Sep 9, 2015
Originally published on September 9, 2015 7:55 pm

The treatment is called Fav-Afrique. It's the only anti-venom approved to neutralize the bites of 10 deadly African snakes, like spitting cobras, carpet vipers and black mambas. And the world's stockpiles of it are dwindling, Doctors Without Borders said Tuesday. The last batch expires next June.

"I think this is really a health crisis," says Dr. Gabriel Alcoba, the snakebite medical adviser for Doctors Without Borders. "We're talking about more than 30,000 deaths per year. This is an epidemic. This is comparable to many other diseases."

Alcoba says he has seen many lives saved by Fav-Afrique. "I saw a small child who had been bitten on the face," he says. "The child's whole face was swollen. He could practically not breathe, and you could not see his eyes."

Doctors gave the child the anti-venom. "And this [his symptoms] all resolved in two days, and the child could go home."

This time next year, though, there may not be any Fav-Afrique at clinics across Africa, Alcoba says.

Fav-Afrique has been produced by just one company — Sanofi Pasteur in France. The company stopped production last year because it was priced out of the anti-venom market, a spokesperson told the BBC. Sanofi is willing to give the recipe to another company. But so far, no plans have been finalized.

Across the world, about 100,000 people die of snakebites each year, Doctors Without Borders says. Even more have limbs amputated or disfigured because of bites. To put that into perspective, Ebola has killed about 11,000 people in West Africa.

Governments, nonprofits and the World Health Organization need to step up to the plate and make sure high-quality anti-venom is produced, Alcoba says. "It's a global responsibility," he says.

Right now WHO has one full-time person devoted to snakebite treatments around the globe, says WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl.

"For us at WHO, snakebites are an important an issue," he says. "We know how much mortality and morbidity this causes."

But the agency has struggled to find funding for the problem. "That's what's hindering us, and the production of snakebite anti-venom worldwide," Hartl says.

Anti-venoms aren't cheap. One treatment of Fav-Afrique costs up to $500 — more than a month's salary for many families in Africa.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The world's stockpile of crucial treatment for poisonous snakebites will soon run out, according to the aid group Doctors Without Borders. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff has more.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: The treatment is called Fav-Afrique, and it's only anti-venom approved to neutralize the bites of 10 deadly African snakes, like spitting cobras, carpet vipers, and black mambas. Dr. Gabriel Alcoba of Doctors Without Borders says he's watched Fav-Afrique save many lives in Africa.

GABRIEL ALCOBA: I saw a small child who had been bitten on the face. His whole face had swollen. He could practically not breathe, and you could not see his eyes.

DOUCLEFF: Then the child got Fav-Afrique.

ALCOBA: It was resolved in two days, and the child could go home.

DOUCLEFF: Fav-Afrique is produced by just one company, Sanofi Pasteur in France. The company stopped production last year, and now the world's last batch of Fav-Afrique is set to expire next summer. Alcoba says deaths and amputations from snakebites are certain to dramatically rise.

ALCOBA: I think it's really a health crisis. I mean, we're speaking about more than 30,000 deaths a year. This is an epidemic. This is comparable with many other diseases.

DOUCLEFF: Alcoba says governments and the World Health Organization need to step up to the plate to find another manufacturer. Gregory Hartl is a spokesperson for WHO. He says for them, it's a big concern. But the agency only has one person working on snakebites.

GREGORY HARTL: We have been unable to get donor support to do more in this area.

DOUCLEFF: Supplies of the anti-venom in the U.S. and other countries are not affected by this impending shortage. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.