Banywich Bone, an 18 year old Sudanese boy, was sleeping in his home one night. The next night, he slept with a newly amputated leg. The cause? A snake bite wound that became infected due to lack of medical attention (1).
Globally, snake bites account for roughly 100,000 deaths. Sub-Saharan Africa alone contributes around 25,000 of these deaths, mostly from the carpet viper snake (2). The majority of victims include those who live far from the main city in poorer areas. Until now, snake bites have been classified as an “injury”, and thus have not received the attention that is needed in order to research better preventative methods and cures. This has recently changed. The World Health Organization (WHO) has added venomous snake bites to a list of “Neglected Tropical Diseases”. The intention behind this move lies in the sad truth that the government generally allocates more resources to research a disease versus a seemingly simple injury. The WHO hopes to give snake bites the importance they deserve in an otherwise underserved population.
In sub-Saharan regions of Africa, snake bites are considered deadly due to the high cost and weak effectiveness of anti-venom in clinics and hospitals. Pharmaceutical companies had been slowing production of anti-venom and, in some cases, even ceasing to produce it because of a lack of profit. Furthermore, the general negligence towards treating snake bites in this region has also led to a decline in anti-venom quality. By classifying snake bites differently, now the WHO is able to provide quality-regulated anti-venom at no cost. Besides the cost of the product, timeliness of administration is also crucial to preventing snake bite deaths. However, this is more difficult for the WHO to regulate (1).
I believe it is a great effort to provide a cure without burdening the patients who cannot afford it. It is frustrating that a simple change in classification is all that it took to save more lives, but I see many parallels of this within the American health care system, too. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association in their article “Disease and Disadvantage in the United States and in England”, health care disparity is greatest among low income groups (3). Like the many sub-Saharan Africans who lacked access to affordable anti-venom, many Americans within the lowest socioeconomic status also lack access to crucial health care. This can lead to less preventative check-ups and less proper health education. Perhaps if the WHO categorized a “low socioeconomic status” as a “Neglected Tropical Disease”, these communities would begin to be taken care of more carefully. As for now, it is still comforting to know that at least one health battle–one involving snake bites–has been attended to.