A taipan is milked for venom to aid in the production of antivenom in Papua new Guinea.
The word “Ebola” became a household name during “the largest and most complex” outbreak of its kind from 2014 to 2016. Often, health crises which escalate quickly, like the ebola outbreak, receive a lot of media attention, whereas slow burners are not exciting enough to make the front page.
ProSocial, “a social impact firm collaborating with documentary filmmakers, scientists and other stakeholders” (1) has undertaken the task of bringing one of such “slow burners” to light. Their documentary, Minutes to Die, reveals the under-discussed reality of snakebite. In 26 months, the well-publicized Ebola crisis took as many lives as snakebite does in just one month, every month. The 62-minute film was written and directed by James Reid, and narrated by Mike Rowe. Although it was filmed in English, it is also available with Spanish and French subtitles.
Minutes to Die reveals to viewers “the underrepresented communities in Africa, India, and the Asia-Pacific region who are ravaged by the impact of snakebite” as well as “the labs of scientists who are facing the treatment challenges head on” and finally “a pivotal meeting with WHO leaders.” (2) The film does an incredible job of covering the crises from a variety of angles; filming in locations such as Costa Rica, Nigeria, Switzerland, and India. Interviews are held with victims of snakebite and their families, as well as researchers, doctors, and professors such as Abdulrazaq Habib from Bayero University (Kano, Nigeria) and David Warrell from The University of Oxford (Oxford, UK). Not only does the film cover the physical and social impacts of being bitten by a venomous snake, it delves into the development of anti-venoms and antidotes, the geographic concentration of snakebite deaths, and finally the fight spearheaded by academics to have snakebite be recognized as a priority by the WHO.
This WHO recognition was given in June 2017; snakebite envenomation was placed on their list of Neglected Tropical Diseases. However, the fight is not over for those vulnerable to snakebite. Although the World Health Organization has “stepped up to the plate”, they continue to need “funding and support to take global leadership on the issue”. To ensure that snakebite does not fall off the WHO’s agenda, it needs “governments and donors to support their control roadmap, otherwise they are almost powerless to take action and provide the support to snakebite endemic countries who themselves have to eventually control the problem.” (3)
Although this is a film that is definitely worth seeing, there are a few issues that should not be dismissed. Specifically, a few topics could have been more delicately handled. For example, one expert speaks of traditional healers with a degree of dismissiveness. His intention to encourage snakebite victims to immediately visit a hospital is well-placed, but a tone more respectful of cultural practices was wanted. Later in the film, the narrator speaks of a young girl who, after being bitten by a snake, was left blind, unable to speak, unable to walk, and without control over her bowels. After listing her disabilities, he pauses and adds “this little girl will never marry” as if it were the greatest of her troubles.
Despite several misplaced comments, the film’s effort to cover the topic in depth is well rewarded. The gravity of the crises is effectively conveyed. Each year, more than 500,000 people “suffer from lifelong disfigurement and amputations” or worse. 125,000 people are recorded as dying from snakebite each year, but actual figures may be much higher. The real problem lies in the inaccessibility of anti-venom; although Central and South America also have venomous snakes, being bitten is far less dangerous than it would be for those living in Africa or Southeast Asia. In those areas, many live far from hospitals and lack a reliable mode of transportation. When one reaches a hospital or other medical facility, anti-venom is often unavailable, and if it is, it costs so much that it may take years for a financially insecure family to pay off. Cheaper versions are being developed in Costa Rica at the request of governments in Nigeria, Mali and Burkina Faso.
Although snakebite is a very serious and widespread danger, it remains relatively unknown for a number of reasons. James Reid, director of Minutes to Die, believes that “Snakebite has been virtually unknown because it affects predominantly the poor in rural, agricultural tropical settings away from urban centers and away from western populations. It is unknown because it cannot be eradicated or immunized against making it less attractive to public health leaders who want to put their own stamp on solving a collective problem. In many ways it’s not a collective disease, it’s a lot of individual people whose lives have been turned upside down – they simply want what is a basic human right - access to essential services and support for snakebite.”(4)
Beyond being informative, Minutes to Die is beautiful cinematographically and effectively uses a variety of mediums to display information. Computerized graphics show the highly affected geographic areas, and animations are used in explaining the way a snake’s venom affects the human body. The documentary is certainly of high quality and appropriately relies on experts in a wide variety of fields to detail the crisis and the required response. While the prescriptions of the film are not very useful to the average viewer wishing to lend a helping hand to snakebite victims, it’s call for the attention of high level policymakers is compelling and well-founded. For those outside of politics, investment is key. To help end the snakebite crises, Reid calls for investment in improving treatments or developing new ones, as well as investing in the WHO to allow it to “fully implement a comprehensive snakebite control roadmap”. He also advocates for “buy-in from leaders of snakebite endemic countries to develop a national snakebite strategy”, as well as investment in “community-based programs which increase awareness, prevention and capacity for snakebite-endemic areas.”(5)
Finally, for viewers wishing to become involved in ending the snakebite crises, Reid says “the biggest thing we can all do is to become a voice for this population of millions of voiceless victims. I encourage anyone who is active on Facebook or Twitter to share videos and stats found on our website: www.minutestodie.com/share-the-issue/. I truly believe this unknown tragedy can rise out of the shadows if we all spend a few easy seconds of our day to share this issue. We’ve also developed a crowd-funding campaign on our website to support the scientists and snakebite advocates on the ground who have never had the financial support to make important projects come to life.” (6)
For those interested in seeing the film, find the trailer here. McGill organizations Borderless World Volunteers and Medlife will also be hosting a free screening of the event. For details, follow the link here.
(1) Galaz, Lauren. Personal interview. September 2017.
(3) Reid, James. Personal interview. November 2017.
Chippaux, Jean-Phillipe. "Snakebite envenomation turns again into a neglected tropical disease!" Journal of Venomous Animals and Toxins including Tropical Diseases, 2017. Accessed November 4, 2017. https://jvat.biomedcentral.com/track/pdf/10.1186/s40409-017-0127-6?site=jvat.biomedcentral.com.
"Ebola virus disease." World Health Organization. Accessed October 29, 2017. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs103/en/.
Galaz, Lauren. Sept 29th, 2017.
Minutes to Die. Directed by James Reid. Accessed October 28, 2017. http://minutestodie.com/.
"Minutes to Die: Press Materials." Www.minutestodie.com. Accessed October 28, 2017. http://minutestodie.com/pdfs/UPDATED-Minutes-to-Die-Press-Materials-for-WEB-PDF.pdf.