Envenoming resulting from snakebites is an important public health problem in many tropical and subtropical countries. Few attempts have been made to quantify the burden, and recent estimates all suffer from the lack of an objective and reproducible methodology. In an attempt to provide an accurate, up-to-date estimate of the scale of the global problem, we developed a new method to estimate the disease burden due to snakebites.
Methods and Findings
The global estimates were based on regional estimates that were, in turn, derived from data available for countries within a defined region. Three main strategies were used to obtain primary data: electronic searching for publications on snakebite, extraction of relevant country-specific mortality data from databases maintained by United Nations organizations, and identification of grey literature by discussion with key informants. Countries were grouped into 21 distinct geographic regions that are as epidemiologically homogenous as possible, in line with the Global Burden of Disease 2005 study (Global Burden Project of the World Bank). Incidence rates for envenoming were extracted from publications and used to estimate the number of envenomings for individual countries; if no data were available for a particular country, the lowest incidence rate within a neighbouring country was used. Where death registration data were reliable, reported deaths from snakebite were used; in other countries, deaths were estimated on the basis of observed mortality rates and the at-risk population. We estimate that, globally, at least 421,000 envenomings and 20,000 deaths occur each year due to snakebite. These figures may be as high as 1,841,000 envenomings and 94,000 deaths. Based on the fact that envenoming occurs in about one in every four snakebites, between 1.2 million and 5.5 million snakebites could occur annually.
Snakebites cause considerable morbidity and mortality worldwide. The highest burden exists in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa.
Janaka de Silva and colleagues estimate that globally at least 421,000 envenomings and 20,000 deaths occur each year due to snakebite.
Of the 3,000 or so snake species that exist in the world, about 600 are venomous. Venomous snakes—which exist on every continent except Antarctica—immobilize their prey by injecting modified saliva (venom) that contains toxins into their prey's tissues through their fangs—specialized, hollow teeth. Snakes also use their venoms for self defense and will bite people who threaten, startle or provoke them. Snakebites caused by the families Viperidae (for example, pit vipers) and Elapidae (for example, kraits and cobras) are particularly dangerous to people. The potentially fatal effects of being “envenomed” (having venom injected) by these snakes include widespread bleeding, muscle paralysis, and tissue destruction (necrosis) around the bite site. Bites from these snakes can also cause permanent disability. For example, snakebite victims, who tend to be young and male, may have to have a limb amputated because of necrosis. The best treatment for any snakebite is to get the victim to a hospital as soon as possible where antivenoms (mixtures of antibodies that neutralize venoms) can be given.
Why Was This Study Done?
Although snakebites occur throughout the world, envenoming snakebites are thought to pose a particularly important yet largely neglected threat to public health. This is especially true in rural areas of tropical and subtropical countries where snakebites are common but where there is limited access to health care and to antivenoms. The true magnitude of the public-health threat posed by snakebites in these countries (and elsewhere in the world) is unknown, which makes it hard for public-health officials to optimize the prevention and treatment of snakebites in their respective countries. In this study, therefore, the researchers develop and apply a new method to estimate the global burden of snakebite.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers systematically searched the scientific literature for publications on snakebites and deaths from snakebites and extracted data on snakebite deaths in individual countries from the World Health Organization (WHO) mortality database. They also contacted Ministries of Health, National Poison Centers, and snakebite experts for unpublished information (“grey” literature) on snakebites. Together, these three approaches provided data on the number of snakebite envenomings and deaths for 135 and 162 countries, respectively. The researchers then grouped the 227 countries of the world into 21 geographical regions, each of which contained countries with similar population characteristics, and used the results of studies done in individual countries within each region to estimate the numbers of snakebite envenomings and deaths for each region. Finally, they added up these estimates to obtain an estimate of the global burden of snakebite. Using this method, the researchers estimate that, worldwide, at least 421,000 envenomings and 20,000 deaths from snakebite occur every year; the actual numbers, they suggest, could be as high as 1.8 million envenomings and 94,000 deaths. Their estimates also indicate that the highest burden of snakebite envenomings and death occurs in South and Southeast Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa, and that India is the country with the highest annual number of envenomings (81,000) and deaths (nearly 11,000).
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings indicate that snakebites cause considerable illness and death around the world. Because of the careful methods used by the researchers, their global estimates of snakebite envenomings and deaths are probably more accurate than previous estimates. However, because the researchers had to make many assumptions in their calculations and because there are so few reliable data on the numbers of snakebites and deaths from the rural tropics, the true regional and global numbers of these events may differ substantially from the estimates presented here. In particular, the regional estimates for eastern sub-Saharan Africa, a region where snakebites are very common and where antivenoms are particularly hard to obtain, are likely to be inaccurate because they are based on a single study. The researchers, therefore, call for more studies on snakebite envenoming and deaths to be done to provide the information needed to deal effectively with this neglected public-health problem.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050218.
This study is further discussed in a PLoS Medicine Perspective by Chippaux
The MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia has a page on snakebites (in English and Spanish)
The UK National Health Service Direct health encyclopedia has detailed information about all aspects of snakebites
Wikipedia has pages on venomous snakes and on snakebites (note: Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
The World Health Organization provides information about antivenoms and about efforts to increase access to antivenoms in developing countries (available in several languages)
A previous article in PLoS Medicine also discusses the neglected problem of snakebite envenoming: Gutiérrez JM, Theakston RDG, Warrell DA (2006) Confronting the Neglected Problem of Snake Bite Envenoming: The Need for a Global Partnership. PLoS Med 3(6): e150