PNG black market in snake venom means over 600 die needlessly

Recent exposure by the Australian media has revealed that more than 600 people die needlessly in Papua New Guinea (PNG) from snake bites each year because corruption keeps stocks of anti-venom so low.

Papua New has some of the highest rates of snake bites in the world, and in some areas, it has been reported that more villagers die from snake bites than from malaria and HIV/AIDS.

PNG is home to the deadly Papua Taipan, one of the most venomous snake in the world, death adders and many other deadly snakes.

It seems that often victims cannot get help because of poor transport and bad roads, and many medical clinics simply do not stock anti-venoms because they are expensive.

High demand for anti-venom has it seems helped create an illegal market, where doctors are suspected of stealing anti-venom from medical stores and selling it back to hospitals.

A dramatic documentary screened on Australian television has exposed what appears to be corruption in Papua New Guinea's health department, involving snake antidote.

Papuan Taipan expert, Australian scientist David Williams, has supported the claims and provided the names of three major pharmaceutical companies, one directly linked to a senior Health Department official.

Dr. Williams himself bitten by a Papua Taipan during the shooting of the ABC documentary, was rushed to hospital and given the only remaining vial of anti-venom.

The Government's medical supply branch apparently cannot account for a quarter of its entire pharmaceutical budget and it has been revealed that about 25 per cent of expensive snake anti-venom brought in goes missing.

The antidote is imported from Australia, but at such inflated prices that the Papua New Guinea health department pays the equivalent of A$2,000 (K4,500) a vial.

Port Moresby General Hospital, the Area Medical Store and senior Health officials are suspected of being involved in the scam.

PNG health officials admit there is a problem and has now ordered a shake-up of the country's medical supplies system.

Dr. Williams says corrupt individuals are profiting from people's suffering by stealing anti-venoms and selling them on the black-market and a specific investigation into the issue is needed.

While a precise figure with regard to human lives is difficult to estimate, Dr. Williams says about 12% of the anti-venom delivered to the Area Medical Store at Badili between 1998 and 2003 disappeared without trace along with another 218 vials listed on Health Department records.

This he says equates to 634 vials of anti-venom worth almost K2 million and in effect 634 lost opportunities to save lives.

The matter has apparently been referred to former Health Minister Sir Peter Barter, who in turn had passed it on to the Police Fraud Squad, but as yet nothing had been done.

It has been reported however that four European consultants have been called in and it is appears that the future procurement and distribution of medical supplies will be outsourced.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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