Malaysian-born Researcher Heads Snakebite Project In Myanmar

Last update: 15/02/2015

MELBOURNE, Feb 15 (Bernama) -- A Malaysian-born researcher is leading an international project to save lives of thousands of people who die each year from venomous snakebites in Myanmar.

Project leader Dr Peh Chen Au, a clinical senior lecturer at the University of Adelaide's School of Medicine, said snakebites were a major public health issue in Myanmar , mainly among poor people who work in agricultural areas, such as in rice paddies.

Dr Peh, who was born in Taiping but later went to schools in Penang and Singapore before coming to Australia, said that although actual figures were not known, an estimated 2,000 people die each year following snakebite in Myanmar, many as a result of acute renal failure caused by the bite.

Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has awarded the University of Adelaide A$2.3 million for a three-year project to help improve the management of snakebite patients in Myanmar and - in partnership with leading Australian anti-venom producer bioCSL - to improve the quality, quantity and availability of anti-venom.

The research team is working with industry and government bodies in Myanmar to identify and implement changes that have the potential to save lives.

"With the combination of quality healthcare systems and research, and an outstanding anti-venom industry, Australia is uniquely placed to play a global leadership role through this humanitarian work," Dr Peh was quoted as saying in a media release issued by the university.

Dr Peh, 51, who is also a consultant renal physician with the Royal Adelaide Hospital, said snakebite was one of the world's most neglected tropical diseases.

A severe bite from a Russell's viper - one of the most common deadly snakes in Myanmar - requires anti-venom within the first 1-3 hours, otherwise the patient risks severe renal failure and death.

"Unfortunately for many snakebite victims, they are in remote regions with little access to antivenom, and often do not receive the care they need within the required time," Dr Peh said.

The other members of the team are Associate Professor Julian White and Dr Afzal Mahmood, both from the Toxinology Department at Adelaide's Women's and Children's Hospital, and the University's School of Paediatrics and Reproductive Health.

Professor White said: "Australia has some of the deadliest snakes in the world but in reality we have only 600-1000 snakebites each year, and only a couple of deaths.

"Myanmar has at least 14,000 snakebites a year, which is a conservative estimate - the actual figure could be three times higher than that."

Dr Afzal Mahmood, originally from Pakistan, said the Myanmar government helped to subsidise the cost of anti-venom treatment, but there was additional costs for patients, such as transport and accommodation.