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University academic to provide expertise to WHO on snakebite

26/04/2021

University of Wolverhampton’s Professor of Herpetology Mark O'Shea MBE has been accepted onto the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) roster of experts for snakebite.

The roster includes experts in a range of fields associated with snakebite, including toxicology, public health, drug distribution, and herpetology.

Snakebite is recognised by the WHO as a Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD), and it has a devastating impact globally, causing cause up to 138,000 deaths annually, and leave another 400,000 people with permanent disabilities. In comparison, 15,000 to 25,000 people a year are maimed or killed by landmines

The WHO have pulled together the roster of expertise to help it carry out a roadmap that has the ambitious target of lowering snake morbidity by 50 per cent by 2030.

Professor O’Shea said: “I thought I should apply as an herpetologist with a specialist knowledge of medically important venomous snakes and extensive field experience on snakebite projects in various countries, including Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Papua New Guinea.”

The first task Professor O’Shea has been involved in has been providing images and up-dated information on the most medically important species. This is so the WHO can build a set of interactive online distribution maps aimed at clinicians and others treating or researching snakebite.

These most medically important species are those that kill the most people each year; they are not necessarily the same as the most venomous snakes. For example, black mambas and king cobras are notorious for being extremely dangerous snakes, but few people are killed by them each year. On the other hand, bites from carpet vipers, Russell’s vipers and some species of cobras and kraits lead to many thousands of deaths annually.

Professor O’Shea also brings the skills associated with being a herpetologist, including the ability to capture and milk snakes for their venom.

However, his career has seen him in some dangerous situations and he has been bitten on a number of occasions. One rattlesnake bite in particular left him suffering from PTSD but he says it has given him a greater understanding of snakebite from the victim’s point of view, and empathy for those that experience snakebites, along with the affect it can have on victims’ families.

He added: “Families lose members, including children and the breadwinners to snakebites but no one looks at the mental impact that this has on the family.

“The people that get bitten are mostly poor people in developing countries. Antivenom and treatment is not necessarily free or even available, and transportation to hospital is difficult or expensive. There are accounts of families selling their goats to pay for treatment, but unfortunately it doesn’t guarantee the survival of their family member.

“I’m proud to be part of the WHO roster of experts. When I’ve been bitten I’ve been saved because I have access to the best facilities; I’ve had a safety net. Antivenom is available and medical evacuation if required. However, we need to pull out the stops so that people in developing countries have access to the treatments that they require, and the knowledge about the snakes too, so education is also important. We need to bring the number of deaths and amputees down.

“It’s also nice to be working on something that will help humankind. It’s not always possible in the field of zoology when your work isn’t always that applied. It was one of the reasons I enjoyed working on the Papuan taipan antivenom project in Papua New Guinea. They now have a solution that is one tenth of the price of the antivenom they used previously.”

And of course, education about snakes also helps conserve snakes themselves, many of which are valuable to the ecology, and to public health, because they eat the rats that destroy the crops or bring disease to human populations.

 

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