We’ve all heard examples of poor priorities in the healthcare industry leading to increased risks. Here’s one more. Global stockpiles of snakebite antivenom are diminishing, in large part because it’s not a profitable medicine. According to Médecins Sans Frontières, allowing the supplies to run low will endanger or possibly even cost the lives of tens of thousands of people in Sub-Saharan Africa. If nothing is done, the supplies could run out within the next year.
The medicine in question is called Fav-Afrique, and it’s the only antivenom which has been proven both safe and effective in treating a variety of snakebites in the region, according to MSF. The current stockpiles are set to expire in June 2016, and the drug maker stopped production in 2014. This means there will be a two-year wait before replacement product can be distributed in 2018. MSF is urging drastic action to replenish supplies in order to save lives.
Snakebites afflict some five million people per year around the globe, according to MSF figures. Of those bitten, 100,000 lose their lives and 400,000 suffer lasting disability or disfigurement. Venomous snakes pose a particular threat in south and southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, because farming exposes people to more snakes and antivenom is scarce.
The bottom line, of course, is that antivenom isn’t cheap. It can cost up to $500 per victim, which is equivalent to four years’ of pay in Sub-Saharan Africa. Past subsidies helped make it attractive for pharmaceutical companies to produce the drug, but competition was stiff and the primary manufacturer quit when their prices were undercut by other companies. This leaves future snakebite victims in a dangerous position, especially since the World Health Organization doesn’t even have formal programs to manage the treatment of snakebites. At this time, the fate of tens of thousands of people hangs in the balance between adequate healthcare and the size of profit margins.