In the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) clinic in Abdurafi, northern Ethiopia, a young woman with a swollen face sits on a bed, awaiting the results of a blood test for snakebite envenoming. Workey Mekonen was bitten on her forehead by a small snake while sleeping on the ground in a farm shed.
The remote region of Amhara in northern Ethiopia is known for its fertile land and its vast commercial farms cultivating sesame, sorghum, cotton, and other crops. It is also home to some 20 species of venomous snakes endemic to this part of Africa. In search of work, almost half a million daily laborers migrate every year from the highlands of Ethiopia to the lowland farms surrounding the town of Abdurafi. They usually arrive in August for the start of the harvest season. Most leave in October, but others stay on until early January for the sorghum harvest. During the peak of the harvest season, farm workers in the fields come across snakes almost every day.
Snakebite is a neglected killer
Snakebite envenoming is overwhelmingly an affliction of the rural poor in agricultural and herding communities and kills more people than any other disease on the neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) list of the World Health Organization (WHO). An estimated 2.7 million people are bitten by venomous snakes worldwide every year, resulting in death for more than 100,000 people and life-long disfigurement and disability for 400,000 more.
“Workey soon felt better and, after five days in our clinic, she could be discharged fully recovered,” says MSF’s Dr. Ernest Nshimiyimana. “She was lucky that she was brought to us in good time and treated with effective antivenom.”