Research Article: A Call for Incorporating Social Research in the Global Struggle against Snakebite

Date Published: September 17, 2015

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): José María Gutiérrez, Thierry Burnouf, Robert A. Harrison, Juan J. Calvete, Nicholas Brown, Simon D. Jensen, David A. Warrell, David J. Williams, H Janaka de Silva.

Abstract: None

Partial Text: A key issue undermining advocacy efforts to measure the impact of snakebite envenoming worldwide is the poor level of information on incidence, mortality, sequelae, and social suffering associated with this disease. Most studies are based on hospital statistics that greatly underestimate the burden. Well-designed, adequately powered, community-based surveys of snakebite incidence and mortality are required to provide reliable data (see [6,7], for example).

Availability and accessibility of antivenoms is limited in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and, to a lesser extent, Latin America [2]. Such shortages lead to a vicious cycle whereby poor supply results in higher prices and lower confidence in the public health sector’s ability to provide effective and safe antivenoms [10,11]. We stress that a thorough understanding of the mechanisms of pharmaceutical supply, distribution, and affordability in regions with limited access to antivenom is crucial for devising improved accessibility strategies. Concomitantly, there is a need for economic analysis of both the sustainability of antivenom supply systems and the modelling of new economic strategies for financing production, distribution, and supply through to the end users. Cost-effectiveness studies of antivenom treatment should also be promoted [12]. Comparisons of approaches used for vaccines and other biologicals may provide useful insights. We trust that renewed research efforts on these topics will help in designing novel strategies for improving antivenom availability and accessibility.

Snakebite envenomings are medical emergencies that require prompt medical attention. Hence, a key issue for reducing their biosocial impact is rapid access to effective healthcare. In many snakebite-affected countries, an envenomed victim may need to walk (or be carried) for many kilometres to reach a primary health post. Thus, studies of the circumstances that delay the access of people bitten by a snake to health centres are of great value. Moreover, having antivenom in stock is not the complete answer. Rural health facilities also require the proper storage infrastructure, which encompasses cold-chain procedures and equipment and access to the other medicines, equipment, and consumables that are necessary to administer antivenom. Beyond initiating treatment, reliable communications infrastructures, transport routes, and ways to ensure the safe transfer of envenomed patients to advanced facilities are all needed [13]. We urge research on the organization of public health services and infrastructure in regions of high incidence of snakebites, as well as on issues associated with medical training and antivenom supply and use. Innovative schemes are needed and they require field studies, such as the centralized “hub-and-spoke” strategy proposed for Nigeria, which not only broadens antivenom access but also implements quality assurance, standardization, and training of health staff [14]. Likewise, a “diagonal” approach in primary health care should be explored, in which the prevention and treatment of envenomings parallel the general strengthening of public health systems.

The skills of personnel at all levels of the health system are critical determinants of effective snakebite envenoming treatment. While much of this education needs to be integrated into the curricula of medical and nursing schools, it should also be included in continuing medical education programs, especially in areas where envenoming is common. Training programs should be designed around robust performance indicators that can be regularly evaluated to assess teaching outcomes, and evaluate the currency and appropriateness of their content. To this end, the preparation of national or regional guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of snakebite envenomings is of utmost relevance. The design of training curricula should be guided by baseline research aimed at determining the current level of staff knowledge in different roles and settings. Information and communication technologies open the door to much wider dissemination of standard protocols; the selection of the particular technologies implementable in each local setting should be supported by a knowledge-based approach strengthened by renewed research initiatives.

One of the great failures of “vertical,” top–down interventions in public health issues is the lack of understanding of the way local communities perceive health problems. Consequently, snakebite prevention and intervention programs at the community level should include in-depth analyses of the cultural characteristics of the communities, the way snakes and snakebites are perceived, the cultural background of local healers, and the perception of state-based, westernized medical services. The reasons why people bitten by snakes do not attend local facilities should be thoroughly investigated. In this context, ethno-anthropological research is a priority and should be readily implemented in regions of high snakebite incidence.

The two most critical aspects of any comprehensive snakebite management strategy linked to local settings and community organizations are prevention and early management of cases. Public campaigns for snakebite prevention require a detailed knowledge of the cultural features of rural communities and their organization and leadership through anthropological research. The use of local languages and dialects, and the involvement of the local population in the community programs, should be incorporated at early stages in prevention efforts. In general, the active engagement of communities in the development of health intervention programs greatly increases the likelihood of success [15].

We wish to stress that the approaches to confront snakebite envenoming as a public health problem must go beyond the biomedical and technological paradigms and should encompass socio-ethnic, socio-economic, and anthropological perspectives. The integration of natural and social sciences in the study of snakebite envenoming, in association with community-based, national, and international advocacy efforts, will certainly bring a fresh and renewed perspective towards understanding and reducing the dramatic burden of this complex and neglected health problem.



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