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Snakebite project from South Australia to save lives in Myanmar

Health & Medical

SNAKEBITE victims in Myanmar will soon have a better chance of survival thanks to an international project being launched from South Australia.

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The project, lead by University of Adelaide researchers, aims to save the estimated 2000 people who die each year from acute renal failure caused by snakebites in Myanmar.

Snakebites are a major public health issue in Myanmar (Burma), mainly among rural poor people who work in agricultural areas, such as in rice paddies.

Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has awarded the University of Adelaide $2.3 million for a three-year project to help improve the management of snakebite patients in Myanmar and – in partnership with leading Australian antivenom producer bioCSL – to improve the quality, quantity and availability of antivenom.

The research will involve population studies, to help better target the distribution of antivenom, as well as first aid education and building capacity in clinical care at a local level.

“With the combination of quality healthcare systems and research, and an outstanding antivenom industry, Australia is uniquely placed to play a global leadership role through this humanitarian work,” says project leader Dr Chen Au Peh, Clinical Senior Lecturer in the University's School of Medicine and a Consultant Renal Physician with the Royal Adelaide Hospital.

“Snakebite is one of the world's most neglected tropical diseases. A severe bite from a Russell's viper – one of the most common deadly snakes in Myanmar – requires antivenom within the first 1-3 hours, otherwise the patient risks severe renal failure and death. Unfortunately for many snakebite victims, they are in remote regions with little access to antivenom, and often do not receive the care they need within the required time,” Dr Peh says.

Team member Associate Professor Julian White, from the Toxinology Department at the Women's and Children's Hospital, and the University's School of Paediatrics and Reproductive Health, says that Australia is well known for having some of the deadliest snakes in the world, but in reality has  less than 1000 snakebites each year, and only a couple of deaths.

“Myanmar has at least 14,000 snakebites a year, which is a conservative estimate – the actual figure could be three times higher than that,” he says.

Team member Dr Afzal Mahmood, of the University’s School of Population Health, says the Myanmar government helps to subsidise the cost of antivenom treatment but transport and accommodation can cost up to US$700.

“This can be more than a year's income,” he says. “Even if the patient survives, the impact of snakebite on the farming poor is severe.

“The project will help address these costs, by ensuring higher quality antivenom is in the right places at the right time, and by improving clinical care, thereby reducing hospital stays.”

The project, funded under DFAT's Government Partnerships for Development program, builds on years of close association between University of Adelaide health researchers and the Myanmar health sector.

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