LSTM launches first emergency snakebite response initiative

News article 8 Apr 2016

Drs Rob Harrison and Nick Casewell from LSTM’s Alistair Reid Venom Research Unit have recently returned from Kenya after helping set up a project that will offer a new emergency response to those suffering from snakebite in the country.

KenSERS is a new Snakebite Emergency Response System (SERS) to reduce death and disabilities of Kenyan Snakebite victims and is the brainchild of the Kenya Snakebite Study Group, formed during a retreat held in Cambridge towards the end of last year, designed and facilitated by LSTM’s Dr Robert Harrison, Head of the Alistair Reid Venom Research Unit. Funded by the Sir Halley Stewart Trust and Baringo County Health Services, KenSERS will be piloted by LSTM and their Kenyan partners in Baringo County.

The project is based on community health volunteers, equipped with a smartphone-Snakebite Emergency App who will be able to identify the snake, administer first aid if necessary and activate a special motorcycle based ambulance, operated by a paramedic with specific skills in the treatment of snakebite to keep the patient alive on the journey to hospital. The rural remote nature of the sub-Saharan African communities at greatest risk of snakebite, and the typically poor road infrastructure, are some of the many reasons that snakebite victims often fail to access effective treatment.

Dr Harrison said: “Snakebite is a neglected medical emergency that kills 32,000 people in some of the poorest rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa, while leaving over 90,000 surviving victims with permanent physical disabilities or disfigurements. KenSERS is the first project of its kind in Kenya, and crucially is not just about getting the patient to the hospital alive and in good time, but also ensuring that when they get there the hospital or health centre has staff trained to deal with snakebite and equipped with antivenoms that are proven to be effective.”

During the recent visit to Kenya, the LSTM team conducted project-liaison meetings with the Governor, the Minister of Health and other health officials of Baringo County. Part of the reason that there is such a high mortality rate associated with snakebite in sub-Saharan Africa is that much of the antivenom imported into Africa is manufactured from Indian snake venoms and therefore is ineffective in treating African snakebite. “Many physicians are not aware that antivenom efficacy is very snake-species specific” continued Dr Harrison. “Given the expense associated with antivenom, it is crucial that the therapies purchased will be effective. The ultimate aim of our project is policy change and we will work with local physicians to upgrade the treatment offered to snakebite victims and improve treatment outcomes.”

The use of the smartphone app by community volunteers will also act as a means to record the number of cases in the areas covered and the hope is, that with further funding, the project can be expanded to the whole of the region and beyond. To this end a project stream, AfricaSERS, has been set up with Health Action International, a Foundation NGO in the Netherlands, who will receive and process charitable donations.