Geography of Venom and Antivenom
VIPER scientists are collaborating to ease the worldwide antivenom crisis.
Venomous creatures naturally live in different places around the world.
Venomous snakes, spiders, scorpions, lizards, centipedes, caterpillars, fish, and sea creatures are a vital part of our planet's intricate ecology, each with amazing chemical secrets for scientists to learn from. And every type of animal has a place on the Earth where it occurs naturally: various cobras in India or Africa, funnel web spiders in Australia, coral snakes in the Americas, and so on. In their native regions, accidental encounters with these animals may pose a public health risk to local people as well as visiting tourists, businesspeople, diplomats and military personnel. In North America, VIPER faculty and students study where and how bites by native animals occur, to help doctors and public health professionals make good decisions about readiness for treatment.
Governments and manufacturers around the world struggle to make enough antivenom for their local needs, and with each country individually facing high costs of drug development it is often impossible to find safe, effective treatments for bites and stings. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared snakebite to be a "neglected tropical disease" due to its high rate of injury and death and the low availability of good treatments.
Zoos, scientists, and pet owners carry exotic animals to new places.
US citizens who stay in home most of the time might think that we are safe from "tropical diseases," but that is not entirely true. Travel, importation, and captive breeding of exotic animals have resulted in a massive increase in the number and variety of venomous creatures kept in private collections in this country.
US poison control centers receive calls about over 60 exotic snakebites each year, according to an analysis by VIPER member Dr. Steven Seifert, of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine (Seifert SA, et al.: Toxic Exposure Surveillance System (TESS)-based characterization of US non-native venomous snake exposures. 1995-2004. Clinical Toxicology; 45(5): 571-578, 2007). Over 90 different exotic snake species have been involved in bites that have happened in the US, including cobras, vipers, pit vipers, and mambas.
VIPER doctors are committed to providing the best care for current and future patients, despite this difficulty.
Through collaborations with the American Association of Poison Control Centers, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the University of New Mexico, the US FDA, and a variety of private organizations, VIPER's medical toxicologists provide consultative assistance in the care of bitten patients. International VIPER member scientists are developing new standards for manufacturing and testing antivenom products. And VIPER's administration plans to keep building its international program to take advantage of our growing network, so that benefits of scale will improve cost-effectiveness as well as quality of care for all involved.
In the US we have no central system to ensure the availability, safety or effectiveness of antivenoms that work against the venoms of exotic animals. US zoos and a small number of other groups keep some foreign antivenom products to use in emergencies. In collaboration with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and in support of the American Association of Poison Control Centers, VIPER tracks and shares information about zoo antivenoms through a computer database known as the Antivenom Index (Boyer L.: Online Antivenom Index. J Med Toxicol, March 2006; 2(1):38.). But these products have not been tested for safety and efficacy under US standards. Bites by venomous pets are a very serious challenge for doctors, because it is not always possible to know the safest choice of treatment, and there are high costs and long delays in getting antivenom to the patient.
Please note: the Antivenom Index is not available to the general public, only to participating zoos and poison control centers. This is to protect confidential information, and to ensure that only experts are in the position of deciding whether a particular antivenom is right to use in an emergency. VIPER staff can not release login information except to qualified AZA and AAPCC managers.
In addition to maintaining the Antivenom Index, VIPER conducts clinical trials of selected antivenoms for which more information is needed to serve the public health; active clinical trials are registered on clinicaltrials.gov. If you work at a hospital in an at-risk region and wish to know more about VIPER's studies, please contact our administrative office at (520) 626-1118. If you manage a collection of venomous animals and wish to import and hold exotic antivenom for your own protection, then please see the US FDA's "Information on the Use of Antivenoms".
If you or someone you know is experiencing a venom emergency, CALL YOUR POISON CONTROL CENTER, at 800-222-1222, for assistance.