Cheating death: Papua New Guinea's snake man

An Australian scientist is on a quest to find an affordable treatment to combat deadly snake bites in Papua New Guinea.

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    In the grasslands of Papua New Guinea (PNG) they lurk - silent, lethal, deadly.

    The Papuan Taipan lies in wait, ready to pounce on unsuspecting villagers as they walk barefoot through the long grass. 

    This danger zone is David Williams' workplace. 

    Known in PNG as the "snake man", the Australian reptile handler-turned-scientist ventures where others fear to tread - literally. 

    Every year, the Papuan Taipan kills up to 1,000 people in PNG, and in some parts of this South Pacific nation, there can be as many as 60 snakes per hectare.

    Those who live in remote villages far from medical help are especially vulnerable.

    "We could probably prevent 80 percent of all snake bites in this country, but the reality is that people can't afford footwear, so they're barefoot all the time and that means they walk quietly. The snakes don't realise that people are walking near them until it's too late," says Williams.

    For snake bite victims, the only hope for survival is an
    anti-venom treatment produced in Australia. But it costs $2,000 - a fortune in PNG. 

    Now Williams and his team are working to change that. They're developing a new anti-venom treatment that will be much cheaper and more readily available. 

    Unlike the existing treatment, their anti-venom one, which is produced through a joint venture between the University of Melbourne and Papua New Guinean collaborators, will not need to be refrigerated, so it can be kept at the many remote clinics that lack electricity.

    "If this product passes the clinical trials and goes into general use it can be supplied to the Papua New Guinean government for about $150 a vial," Williams explains.

    As well as trialling his new anti-venom treatment, David Williams runs a snake bite ambulance service, retrieving patients from often remote villages in Papua New Guinea [101 East/Al Jazeera] 

    Milking venomous snakes

    But in order to create this new life-saving treatment, Williams and his team must catch the deadly Taipans so that they can milk them for their venom - the essential ingredient in the new antidote.

    Al Jazeera joined Williams and one of his team members, Owen Paiva, on an expedition to catch Taipans in the bush outside Port Moresby. 

    When Paiva lifted a sheet of tin lying in the long grass, a fierce Taipan lunged at him. Paiva says the aggressive snakes also have large amounts of potent venom, making them a good catch for their research. 

    But it takes a steely determination to grab these killers.

    "We have each other's back all the time," says Paiva. "We feel that if someone is not able to carry out a certain duty, any one of us is able to step in and help out." 

    Once they extract the venom from the Taipans, it's shipped to a laboratory in Costa Rica, where Williams' research partners produce anti-venom and send it back.

    His team of snake milkers know that one day they might need a dose themselves. 

    "They understand the risks and I think they're incredibly brave to learn how to do it properly, for being willing to carry it on," he says.

    Williams keeps several dozen Taipans in captivity to extract venom, used to formulate the anti-venom treatment [101 East/Al Jazeera] 

    'I've had six snake bites in 30 years'

    Snakes have always been creatures of fascination, not fear, for Williams, the chief executive of the Global Snakebite Initiative, a non-profit organisation that helps snake bite victims. 

    "I was told that my first contact with snakes was when I was about three, and I was certainly keeping snakes from when I was about eight onwards," he says. 

    But it wasn't until he went to PNG and stayed in a village where four people died as a result of snake bites in one week that he decided he had to act.

    "I suppose that really sort of made me want to stick my neck out and do something about it," he says.

    But this love affair has been a dangerous liaison. "I've had six snake bites in 30 years and I've had adverse reactions to at least four of those. We realise the next one will probably be the last."

    The last time Williams was bitten - in 2008 - he went into shock. He had trouble breathing, his blood pressure dropped and he almost lost consciousness. 

    After a frantic dash to Port Moresby, he received the hospital's last dose of Australian anti-venom treatment. 

    This near-death experience inspired him to develop a cheaper, more readily available alternative. 

    Having an anti-venom treatment closer at hand could have helped save Hepatua, a young mother who died after being bitten by a Taipan near Warma village, northwest of Port Moresby. 

    Hepatua was gathering mustard seeds in the bush near her home, carrying her infant son Andrew through the tall grass, when a Taipan struck her several times.

    "When she recognised she had been bitten by a snake, she knew she must go somewhere and raise an alarm," says village elder Robert Kenea. 

    But the venom had a catastrophic effect on Hepatua's nervous system. 

    She tried in vain to reach villagers she could see further along the riverbank, but collapsed on top of baby Andrew, crushing his legs. 

    "When friends came they could see she had fallen," says Kenea. "So they got the baby out of her arms. She was already numb." 

    By the time villagers carried her to the local clinic, the venom had already surged through her body and her airways were obstructed. 

    With none of the expensive Australian anti-venom treatment at the clinic, the young mother died. 

    Her son, who walks awkwardly after his legs were crushed beneath his mother when she collapsed, is still too young to understand what happened. 

    "It will be sad to tell him, but we will tell him. He has to know what happened to his mother," says Kenea. 

    The Papuan Taipan is one of the most dangerous snakes in the world. This species kills up to 1,000 people in PNG each year [101 East/Al Jazeeara] 

    Saving lives

    Williams says the new anti-venom he's developing could be stocked at remote clinics such as the one in Kenea's village because it doesn't require refrigeration. 

    More funding is needed for the project but Williams hopes to finish the clinical trial in the coming weeks. 

    "We would hope that if we continue to receive funding then our new anti-venom treatment could be in general use by early 2017 or even late 2016," he says. 

    It may be an inherently dangerous occupation but Williams says the reward - the potential to save thousands of lives - is worth it. 

    "What is gratifying is when you have a child wheeled in on a stretcher and a family, you know that obviously they think that child is going to die any minute. But 24 or 48 hours later, you'll be able to say goodbye to them and send them home," he says. 

    From the 101 East documentary Papua New Guinea's Snake Man. Watch the full film here.

    Follow Trevor Bormann on Twitter: @TrevorBormann

    Follow Liz Gooch on Twitter: @liz_gooch

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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