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In 1970, when David Warrell was a young hospital clinician in northern Nigeria, he faced three horrifying snakebite cases in quick succession that would change the course of his career. One man had stepped on a puff adder while getting out of bed. He arrived with a gangrenous leg and died of sepsis before Warrell could amputate. Another man was bitten by a saw-scaled viper while farming sorghum. He arrived bleeding from his mouth and urinary tract, and he soon died from massive internal bleeding. A third victim, a boy, was struck by a snake charmer’s Egyptian cobra. He was dead on arrival, after the snake’s venom progressively paralyzed his body, starting with his eyelids and ending with his breathing muscles. In no cases did Warrell have antivenom to administer as he helplessly observed deaths that he soon realized were common.
“I got a missionarylike attitude toward snakebite as a neglected public health problem,” says Warrell, an emeritus professor of tropical medicine at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and director of the Global Snakebite Initiative in Brisbane, Australia.
Snakebites - People - Year - Africa - South
Snakebites kill as many as 138,000 people a year, mostly among the rural poor in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Another 400,000 victims suffer major disabilities such as amputation. The health burden is greater than that of any of the 20 neglected tropical diseases tracked by the World Health Organization (WHO) and equal to that of prostate or cervical cancer. Yet funders, more interested in infectious diseases that can be prevented and eradicated, have largely stayed away.
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That is now changing. Today, the Wellcome Trust charity in London announced an £80 million, 7-year research program to improve antivenoms and search for new treatments—a major influx of money in...
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