AUSTRALIAN Venom Research Unit clinical toxinologist and herpetologist David Williams – popularly known as “Snakeman” because of the number of snakebite victims he has saved – leaves Papua New Guinea next week to take up an appointment with the World Health Organisation in Geneva, Switzerland.
He will be working on a project to improve access to snake anti-venoms in the developing world, particularly in Africa and Asia.
Mr Williams has worked and lived in PNG for almost 15 years, and even though his posting to the WHO is temporary, he said leaving PNG even for a little while was perhaps the most difficult decision he had to make.
For the past four years, Mr Williams has been studying the clinical effects of snakebite at Port Moresby General Hospital, and at one stage, even became a patient himself, after being bitten by a 2.5m long Papuan taipan at Napa Napa during the making of a documentary on PNG’s dire anti-venom woes for the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent programme in 2007.
Through his work, the lives of many snakebite patients have been saved, and with the development of a new taipan anti-venom that costs less than one-eighth the price of the current anti-venom, he hopes that many thousands more lives would be saved in the years to come by enabling the National Government to supply more anti-venom to many more parts of PNG than ever before.
But regardless of which anti-venom is used to treat snakebite, Mr Williams says the secret to saving snakebite patients lies in having a well-trained and responsive health work force.
“In rural health centres, such as Veifa’a in Mekeo, the snakebite mortality rate has plummeted as a result of the training we have given to local health workers, and because of their willingness to embrace this new knowledge,” he said.
“To some extent, rural health centres which have trained staff and access to anti-venom, now do much better at managing snakebite than even Port Moresby General Hospital, perhaps because the staff are in the same boat as their community members – any one of them can be bitten by a snake, so they are acutely aware of just how urgent an emergency snakebite is, and they take extreme steps to manage snakebite well.
“It is sometimes a bit more difficult at POMGH, which has a very under-resourced emergency department that is grossly overcrowded and often under-staffed; patients sometimes fall through the cracks.”