Herpetologist/wilderness paramedic Jordan Benjamin ’14 examines a mamba, an extremely venomous snake, while conducting snakebite research in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Asclepius Snakebite Foundation

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Like a snake in the grass, the threat of venomous snakebites doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves. But one Whitman alumnus is helping raise the profile of snakebites and improve treatments.

In September, herpetologist and wilderness paramedic Jordan Benjamin '14 launched the Asclepius Snakebite Foundation (ASF) to reduce the death and disability caused by venomous snakebites.

"We will be traveling into the field to treat snakebite patients, establish clinics, train local providers, conduct clinical research and implement public health education initiatives where the need is greatest," said Benjamin, ASF's founder and executive director. 

Venomous snakebites are one of the most devastating health threats in developing countries around the world - on the same level of magnitude as malaria and typhoid. The World Health Organization conservatively estimates more than 130,000 people die each year and another 400,000 are permanently maimed as a result of being bitten by venomous snakes.

Ample supplies of effective antivenom - costing just $100 per vial - could take a big bite out of those numbers. Unfortunately, antivenom is prohibitively expensive for most villagers and in short supply, especially in sub-Saharan African countries where the medicine is needed most. In the early 2000s antivenom production for the sub-continent had fallen to only 20,000 vials per year to treat over 300,000 lethal snakebites, and many of these patients require two to four doses or more to neutralize the venom.

"What we really need are 500,000 - and up to 2 million vials - of antivenom, which we don't currently have," Benjamin said during a 2013 TEDx talk. Benjamin estimates less than 10 percent of patients will receive life-saving antivenom treatment when they need it.

ASF has assembled a team of international experts - including Whitman's resident snake specialist, Associate Professor of Biology Kate Jackson - in the fields of snakebite research, medical toxicology, herpetology and public health education, as well as several organizations that have committed to build stocks of medications, equipment and supplies. 

Inosan Biopharma, an independent antivenom producer, has pledged to provide a new generation of field-stable antivenoms for sub-Saharan Africa. This groundbreaking product can be stored at room temperature, counteract poisons contained in the venom of different species of snakes and be given directly in poorly equipped rural areas, where 95 percent of snakebites occur. 

ASF is preparing to deploy a team of researchers to Guinea in west Africa to establish a dedicated snakebite center and launch the first multidisciplinary, prospective study of neurotoxic snakebites on the continent. Primary goals of the Guinea study are to identify some of the factors responsible for the high case fatality rate that has been observed in patients and to identify novel strategies for improving the clinical management of these patients in the field.

"The great thing about treating snakebites is that seemingly up until the last few minutes before death, patients can improve - and improve dramatically. Basic treatment, a few vials of antivenom and proper medicine can make the difference between life and death," Benjamin said.