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Afterimage Review

Antivenoms: A Health Issue Most Of Us Probably Almost Never Think About

Antivenoms
Copyright: U.S. Mission Photo by Eric Bridiers

While biologists have discovered antivenoms for many of the venomous species that exist throughout the world, there are still a number of those for which no antivenom yet exists. 

Most of us will never see these species in the wild; we’ll see them in zoos and in aquariums, we’ll see photos of them in books and magazines, and we’ll see photos of some of these species on science shows on television.  Many of these species are relatively rare, the bites or stings only effect a handful of fishermen, scuba divers who work in undersea environments, tourists who like to travel to extremely remote locations, cave explorers and research biologists who travel to remote regions of the world specifically to study various animal species.

Even among the small handful of people who do encounter these species in the wild, bites and stings are rare, only a small handful of people are bitten or stung by these species throughout the world each year.  That’s why we almost never hear anything about these species, and this is also why so little resources are allocated to researching antivenoms for people who come into contact with them.  If an issue effects only a small handful of people each year, then often no one anywhere does much of anything about it.

Government agencies rarely allocate funding for researching a health issue which only effects a small handful of people each year.  Pharmaceutical companies usually aren’t interested in researching these species either, for the obvious reason that they would need to spend a lot more money to pay for researching and testing antivenoms than they would possibly ever be able to recover from manufacturing and selling it.  The biology departments at universities throughout the world also tend not to allocate a lot of funding for issues which only effect no more than a few hundred or a few thousand people throughout the world each year.

Among some of the ocean dwelling venomous species throughout the world for which there are no known antivenoms available yet are the blue ringed octopus, some species of cone snails, various corals, stonefish, the flower sea urchin, some species of anemones such as the hells fire anemone (also known as the stinging sea anemone), at least one starfish species, some species of jellyfish including the box jellyfish, and some of the sea snakes and sea kraits.  Among some of the land dwelling species for which there exist no known antivenoms yet are snakes such as the banded water cobra (also known as the ringed water cobra), the Congo water cobra, species of caterpillars such as the giant silkworm moth, various insects, some species of spiders as well as some of the poisonous species of frogs such as the golden poison frog which are so toxic that touching their skin can result in needing to be hospitalized.

The stings or bites from some of these species cause the victims to become extremely sick for weeks or months after the envenomation, others cause the victims to suffer permanent damage to certain parts of their bodies, and in some instances, many of these species that I’ve mentioned are in fact potentially fatal to humans.

So, Who WILL Research These Species?

The World Health Organization is probably the agency which would be most capable of  researching antivenoms for the remaining venomous species for which there are no antivenoms available yet.  The precise cost of what it would take for biologists and herpetologists to create antivenoms for the remaining venomous species for which there are no available antivenoms is obviously not knowable.

It is my best guess that the WHO would only need to raise their annual membership dues from each of the member states by no more than 1% or 2%, to fund the research necessary for finding the antivenoms for many of these aforementioned species.

People who work with reptiles such as zookeepers for example, also receive vaccines which are intended to protect them in the event that they do get bitten by some of these species.  It may also be possible to include the venoms from some of the species that I’ve mentioned which have not been thoroughly researched yet in future versions of these vaccines.

There may also be an added benefit to allocating funding for researching antivenoms for the remaining species of lizards, snakes, spiders, sea anemones, corals, snails, jellyfish, octopus, fish and frogs throughout the world for which there exist no known antivenoms.  In addition to the obvious- that an antivenom will quite clearly protect the people who are likely to encounter these species in the wild, historically, the cures for some diseases and medical conditions have been discovered by accident- that is, while scientists were researching a specific project, they inadvertently discovered compounds that became useful for applications that were unrelated to the original research.

Some researchers have tried to create antivenoms for some of the species that I’ve mentioned, and the reason that they’ve not yet succeeded is that the venoms that are produced by these species of snakes, lizards, frogs, insects, spiders, fish and shellfish are combinations of very complex chemicals.

The reason that antivenoms for the species which I’ve mentioned to not yet exist is not that the technologies which would be needed to research them aren’t understood; scientists first successfully discovered an antivenom for the Indian cobra in 1895.  The reason that no antivenoms for these species exist is hardly anyone anywhere in the world is making any effort at all to allocate the funding which would be needed to hire the personnel who have the expertise in this field to research the venoms of these species.

The technologies that are available to research biology laboratories throughout the world are becoming increasingly sophisticated every year now, so who knows what biologists may discover if they begin to research antivenoms for some of these species?  Perhaps some of the chemicals or compounds that are present in these venoms may be useful in treating or even curing other unrelated diseases.

What About  More Common Diseases And Conditions?

The branches of healthcare agencies from around the world which are responsible for researching diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, asthma, etc. will likely state that they are underfunded and that need more funding for their research projects.

While this is in fact true, the diseases which effect many millions of people are already being researched- national governments, pharmaceutical companies and universities are investing their available funds into researching those diseases.  The remaining venomous species for which there are no known antivenoms are not being researched at all because these only effects a few hundred for a few thousand people in the entire world each year.  I am suggesting that the senior administrators within World Health Organization may want to seriously consider establishing an office within their agency which is intended specifically to address researching antivenoms for these species.

Is this actually realistic? 

Every country in the world is different.  I cannot look at the national budget of all of the 194 countries in the world which are WHO members, and list where I feel that funding could be re-allocated from various government agencies or government projects.  If enough governments around the world do decide that it is worth devoting funding to researching antivenoms for the remaining animal species throughout the world for which no antivenoms yet exist, then governments will need to decide where the funding will come from.

In some countries it may be necessary to raise income taxes, but remember as I stated earlier, I suspect that the WHO will probably only need to increase their annual membership dues by 1% or 2% to acquire the funding necessary to begin researching antivenoms for these species, so this will only require a very minimal raising of income taxes in some countries.  In some countries, governments may need to cut a small amount of funding from some agencies or projects to pay higher WHO fees.

In the specific case of my own home country, there do exist people who have been suggesting that our government has been grossly and wastefully overspending hundreds of billions of dollars every year on defense projects since before I was born, but that will be a topic of another (upcoming) article.

If the World Health Organization were to allocate funding specifically for researching antivenoms for the various species throughout the world for which there do not yet exist antivenoms, this will save lives.  This will save the lives of the people who get bitten or stung by these species every year, and the research may also contribute towards curing or treating other diseases.  It is always preferable to prevent the toxic effects of an envenomation than it is to treat someone once they are already in excruciating pain, struggling to breathe, losing circulation and risking permanent nerve or tissue damage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About the author

Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Scott lives in Rye, N.Y. photo credit: Liza Margulies

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