Snakebite Documentary Offers a Riveting Immersion into a Neglected World of Pain and Suffering

Posted 9 November 2017

Snakebite panel: (from left) David Williams, Diana Barr, James Reid and Matthew Lewin
When the director of a powerful new documentary on the horrific global burden of snakebite sat down Tuesday night at TropMed17 for the American premiere of his film, he didn't have to look far for a timely example to include in his introductory remarks for “Minutes to Die.” 
Checking his Twitter feed, James Reid saw a surging interest in the tragic fact that, in just the last three weeks, snakebites had killed 250 people in just two states in Nigeria, with many of the deaths attributed to a lack of antivenom.
“These are the same kinds of stories we were seeing when we set off to do this film,” said Reid. “That’s why we wanted to give a voice to the voiceless, because the crisis is much bigger than we ever imagined.”
“Waiting to Die” takes viewers on a gripping, roller coaster of a journey exploring a hidden tragedy that causes 20,000 deaths annually—mostly in poor rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia—and leaves many more permanently disabled and disfigured.
The film shows heart-breaking scenes of children screaming in pain and fighting for their lives. There are stories of poor families in India and Kenya selling everything they own to pay for expensive anti-venom and long-term care. A young man in India is brought in to a hospital for treatment and warned that the antivenom could have side effects. When it’s administered, he nearly dies and requires intubation.
But there are also stories of hope. The filmmakers take a ride with David Williams, CEO of the Global Snakebite Initiative, as he pilots a specially outfitted snakebite ambulance in Papua New Guinea (PNG). The vehicle is set up to provide immediate care to snakebite victims, almost as good as what they would receive in a hospital. There also are scenes from an unusual nonprofit in Costa Rica that produces snakebite antivenom and may soon supply health facilities in Africa and Asia at a fraction of the cost charged by other manufacturers.
Also, without giving away a plot twist, the film explores recent developments that could significantly elevate the issue on the international agenda.
Williams sat on a panel after the film to discuss, among other things, how he became so committed—locally, in his work in PNG, and globally, as a advocate for international action—to reducing the burden of snakebite.
“I spent a week in the countryside in PNG less than a hour from a city and saw four people die from snakebite,” he said. “That’s a shocking perspective and a major motivating factor for doing the work I do.”
Matthew Lewin, founder of the biotech start-up Ophirex Inc., talked about his work, also featured in the film, to develop a drug that could at least slow the effects of snake venom and give people more time to seek treatment. (As the title of the film conveys, for some snakes, particularly if they bite small children, that time can be measured in minutes.)
He’s currently conducting pre-clinical testing with a drug candidate that has shown strong potential in early testing. Lewin said he has been “learning on the fly” about snakebite, having been inspired to get more involved after a colleague at the California Academy of Sciences died from a snakebite.
Diana Barr of the Australian Anti-Venom Research Unit, who is seen in the film casually “milking” venom from large poisonous snakes, wants snakebite prevention integrated in to “one health” initiatives. She noted that some of the same measures directed at other diseases, like wearing boots to prevent infections from soil-borne parasites or sleeping under bednets to prevent malaria, also can deter snakebites.
“In some parts of the world, if you live in a village where you have to venture into the long grass to go to the toilet, going to the toilet is dangerous,” she said. “So putting the toilet close to the home or in the home not only improves sanitation, it can reduce the risk of snakebite.”