May 23 (UPI) -- Because snakebites kill and disable hundreds of thousands of people every year, the World Health Organization unveiled a new strategy Thursday to mitigate the dangers.
Calling snakebites the world's greatest hidden health crisis, the WHO announced a goal of investing $136 million to educate communities and prevent snakebites, make more effective treatments and find safer, cheaper anti-venom.
"We are cautiously optimistic that the WHO's snakebite strategy could be a turning point in tackling this disease, and governments, donors and other stakeholders must not squander this opportunity but instead provide concrete political and financial support to ensure its success," said Julien Potet, a policy adviser on neglected tropical diseases for Medicins Sans Frontieres. "It is time for everyone to harness this momentum and stop unnecessary deaths and disabilities from snakebites once and for all."
The WHO program aims to emphasize first aid techniques, proper treatment and training for medical personnel.
"Snakebite is -- or should be -- a treatable condition. With access to the right anti-venom, there is a high chance of survival," said Professor Mike Turner with Wellcome Trust, a research charity. "While people will always be bitten by venomous snakes, there is no reason so many should die."
Wellcome Trust is investing $101 million over the next seven years in prevention efforts.
The majority of the deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. More people die there from snakebite than any of the 20 neglected tropical diseases tracked by the WHO.
"The doctor didn't believe at first that I was bitten by a king cobra," Thai firefighter Pinyo Pookpinyo told CNN. "It affected me for about two months. I had to go back to the hospital to undergo surgery for another two times to remove dead tissues from my thumb."
Not much has changed over the last 200 years in creating anti-venom. First, the venom is extracted from a snake by having it bite into a vial. That venom is injected into a horse or other animal in small doses to produce an immune response. Then, scientists draw the animal's blood to get the antibodies that will fight the venom.
"It comes from a horse, and injecting horse proteins into people isn't without its risks," Wellcome's lead snakebite scientist, Phil Price, told CNN. There can be reactions like rashes or anaphylaxis. "Anti-venoms are far from perfect. A lot aren't clinically tested in the same way other drugs are tested."
Another problem is that anti-venom production hasn't been profitable for pharmaceutical companies.
Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine director David Lalloo said the investment by Wellcome Trust and the WHO will make a transformative difference. It will better highlight the problem and provide more reliable data on how widespread the problem is.
"It builds the economic argument for manufacturers to invest in anti-venom," Lalloo told Science magazine.
Professor emeritus of tropical medicine at the University of Oxford David Warrell became an activist for the dangers of snakebites in 1970 when three horrific cases came to his clinic in northern Nigeria. He watched helplessly as the three people died, including a boy.
"The tide really does seem to have turned," Warrell told the magazine.