Residents of Bijagos Archipelago, a group of 88 islands in Guinea-Bissau, have been exposed to fatal snake bites following a prolonged shortage of antivenom antidotes in the area.
Since the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the impending shortage of antivenoms in the area last year, islanders are dying, while others are being left with life-changing wounds, according to News24.
“The price of some antivenoms has dramatically increased in the last 20 years, making treatment unaffordable for the majority of those who need it,” the WHO said in a statement last year.
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Bijagos Archipelago are home to more than 30,000 people and are recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a world’s heritage site for their uniquely diverse ecosystems.
The islands, an Atlantic paradise in Africa, is also home to rare animal species, including dolphins, tortoises, and some of the most poisonous snakes, such as cobras and mambas.
“On certain islands, our staff can’t walk more than 5 minutes without seeing one (a poisonous snake),” Aissata Regolla, a researcher at Guinea-Bissau’s Institute for Bioversity and Protected Marine Areas, told AFP.
Generally, antivenom treatments in Africa are reportedly not cost-effective for companies that manufacture them.
Since 2010, French pharmaceuticals company Sanofi stopped manufacturing its widely used antivenom drug Fav-Afrique serum, citing competition from cheaper manufacturers.
Unfortunately, the cheap antidotes available in Africa have proven less effective compared to the Fav-Afrique serum, which was effective against venoms from 10 different snake species.
Medical researchers also claim that the process of cultivating the low-cost antidotes is quite delicate further complicating the whole process of delivery.
“Ativenom is a biological product. You have to buy the venom, draw out the antibodies, purify them…it’s an arduous and complex process,” Jean-Philippe Chippaux, a snake bite expert at France’s Institute of Research for Development (IRD), said.
Currently, a single dose of the most effective antivenom costs $150, which is a whole month’s pay for most citizens of Guinea-Bissau. Medical workers in the area also say they encounter serious problems when identifying the exact type of snake venom they are dealing with since they do not have antidotes that are meant for different species of snakes.
And with only 10 percent of the entire country having access to electricity, medical facilities in Guinea-Bissau find it difficult to store the antivenoms at chilled temperatures as required.
At least 30,000 people die from snake bites every year in sub-Saharan Africa.