World expert on snake-bite

I have listened to Professor David Warrell give talks on snake-bite over many years while I worked at the KEMRI-Wellcome trust collaborative research program in Kilifi, Kenya. Despite my phobia about snakes, his talks were always fascinating… I just needed to shut my eyes when pictures of snakes appeared on the screen.

 

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When I decided to make the move from being a malaria research scientist to a science journalist at the end of 2010,┬ámy first interview was with Professor David Warrell, Emeritus Professor of Tropical medicine at the university of Oxford.┬áSnakebite is one of the most neglected of tropical ailments. Barely mentioned even in sessions of ‘neglected tropical diseases’ in major conferences. I was keen to know why he choose to go into snake-bite research. Here is his brief story.

 

Professor Warrell was born in England in 1939 and qualified with a medical degree at the Oxford University in 1964. After several jobs, his interest in working in the African continent lead him to Nigeria in 1970 where he spend 7 years. It was during this time that he dealt with his first case of snake bite that has remained etched in his mind. He admitted a farmer at the Ahmadu-Bello hospital in a town called Zaria in Northern Nigeria who had been bitten by a snake. There was no antivenom in the hospital and no one knew what to do. The man was bleeding from every orifice. Professor Warrell took some of the blood for cross-matching so that he could transfuse the man. The blood went in but drained out just as quickly. He sat by the farmer’s bed side as he bleed to death. He says of the experience, ‘It was a career changing experience. The helplessness of not being able to stop the bleeding.’

 

On his return to Oxford, he was asked to head a Wellcome Trust funded research unit in Thailand. This time he went along with his wife, Mary and they studied cerebral malaria. After another seven years, they were back in Oxford with their two daughters.

 

His interest in snake bite and haunting memories of the farmer in Zaria, send him back to Nigeria. From the 1980’s, Professor Warrell has worked with the Federal Ministry of health in Nigeria which funds the research and production of antivenoms that are effective for the snakes found in Nigeria particularly the saw-scale viper. The Federal Ministry of health has set up a snake bite center in Kaltungo hospital in North-eastern Nigeria. The hospital is often overwhelmed by snake bite patients seeking treatment, some from as far as Niger and Cameroon. This project is a fine example of an African government’s active participation in research making it directly beneficial to its citizens. The research has led to the development of antivenoms specific for Nigeria, that have already undergone clinical trials in the country.