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Researchers forecast mass spread of venomous snakes in coming years: 'Major concern that they will bite more people'

The redistribution of snakes will create a new public health challenge for many countries.

The redistribution of snakes will create a new public health challenge for many countries.

Photo Credit: iStock

Researchers are warning that venomous snakes could begin spreading to new areas as global temperatures rise, creating the potential for deadly human-animal interactions.

What's happening?

A new study published in The Lancet Planetary Health projects that changes in climate will have "profound effects" on venomous snakes. Scientists expect some species will expand their territories by 2070, while others will die off after being unable to adapt. 

The study looked at 209 of the 251 species of "medical importance," according to the World Health Organization. It concluded that South America's Amazon region and Southern Africa would lose the most species of snakes, while the eastern United States, northern Europe, and southwest Asia would gain the most. 

Nepal, China, Myanmar, Niger, and Namibia are expected to have the largest increase in venomous snake species. 

Why is this concerning?

The study points out that the redistribution of snakes will create a new public health challenge for many countries, including a number of low-income nations with limited resources, significant rural populations, and high-risk groups including agricultural workers

"There is also a major concern that they will bite more people if warm temperatures, severe wet weather events, and flooding that displaces snakes and people get more frequent," WHO research scientist Anna Pintor, who works for the organization's neglected tropical diseases group, told The Guardian. 

"We urgently need to understand better how exactly this will affect where people get bitten, and how many people get bitten, so that we can prepare." 

According to the WHO, millions of people every year develop clinical illnesses after being bitten by snakes, with as many as 138,000 dying from the effects of venom. The organization also attributes around 400,000 amputations to bites from venomous snakes. 

Snakes aren't the only animal of concern in a warming world, either. 

Researchers have observed deer ticks migrating northward because of higher temperatures, which is increasing the risk of Lyme disease in humans. And as watering holes dry up in Africa, elephants are also on the move, making dangerous human-wildlife conflicts more likely as the animals pass through inhabited areas.

What can be done about this? 

Soumyadeep Bhaumik, a medicine lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, believes that this study has provided valuable data.

"Snakebite is in essence a human-animal-environment conflict. The modeling does not take into account how humans themselves will adapt/change to climate change. [But] the global study addresses a significant gap in knowledge," Bhaumik told The Guardian. 

The WHO notes that education is a crucial preventative tool against snake bites. Effective antivenoms are also available. However, the organization highlights the importance of making sure these are accessible to vulnerable communities.

Meanwhile, the study's authors pointed to the need for widespread coordination. 

"The trans-border shift in snake habitats that we projected will necessitate collaboration between neighboring countries, regional health authorities, and the international community, to ensure that low-income countries will be able to effectively face these new risks," they wrote

Finally, it's also not too late to slow down rising temperatures, which are projected to contribute to differences in snake distribution. Changing the way you use electricity by unplugging unused energy vampires is one small action that can help.

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