Addressing the problem of snakebite in Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea (PNG) has one of the highest localised snakebite rates in the world. In some parts of PNG, snakebite mortality rates can be three times higher than those from other diseases such as malaria or tuberculosis.

In southern PNG Papuan taipan snakes cause more than 90% of all cases of envenoming admitted to Port Moresby General Hospital. This accounts for 60% of all ventilator bed-days in its ICU. Up to 63% of victims are less than 25 years of age, and nearly half of all fatalities involve children. Injuries suffered include spontaneous bleeding, irreversible paralysis, and sometimes muscle damage, heart rhythm problems and acute kidney injury.

Despite these dire statistics, snakebite is a treatable disease, and early administration of effective antivenom can be life-saving. Snake antivenoms have been used in Australia and PNG for more than 70 years, but the very high cost (~US$1,500 vial) of current products limits access to these essential medicines in PNG, resulting in chronic shortages and supply failures.

The current distribution of antivenoms across Papua New Guinea can be found here.

Watch: Al Jazeera Television’s 2015 documentary on our work.

Charles Campbell Toxinology Centre – A partnership for change

Since 2005 the University of Melbourne, in partnership with the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) and Port Moresby General Hospital have sought to address the problem of snakebite in PNG. Our approach is a multidisciplinary model that embraces research, public education, health worker training and improved treatment of envenomed patients. The goals are to reduce the number of deaths due to snakebite, and to improve patient care so that mortality is reduced. In doing so we aim to:

  • build local scientific and medical infrastructure and capacity;
  • educate and train future leaders in science, technology and medicine;
  • improve access to safe, affordable and life-saving antivenoms;
  • remove gaps in our knowledge of snakebite and its treatment in PNG;
  • translate our findings into practice to save lives; and
  • ensure program sustainability long into the future.

The Charles Campbell Toxinology Centre carries out this work, and operates research facilities at the University of Papua New Guinea’s School of Medicine & Health Sciences (UPNG, SMHS), and a Snakebite Clinic within the Emergency Department at Port Moresby General Hospital. In collaboration with the University of Melbourne’s Department of Pharmacology & Therapeutics, the UPNG SMHS, and the PMGH, CCTC is involved in the clinical trials of a new Papuan taipan antivenom for use in PNG. The Centre is also actively engaged in venom & toxin research, studies of snakebite epidemiology, the training of PNG research students and medical personnel, and we engage with PNG communities to teach them how to be snake aware, and to provide first aid for people who are victims of snakebites.