Science vs. snakes in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is home to a global leader in the research and development of antivenoms.

Conservationist Pete Bethune was hiking through the Costa Rican rainforest last December when he was bitten by a fer-de-lance, one of the country’s most prominent and dangerous snakes.

From the moment the terciopelo bit Bethune, the New Zealander knew he had little time to spare. Antivenom serum “has to be given in the first six hours” after to the bite “as a key for success.”1

Even if Bethune got out of the rainforest and to a hospital in time, he’d have to receive the proper serum. With snakes, the specific antivenom needed depends on the species involved.

Thankfully, Bethune knew that the snake in question was a fer-de-lance. And Costa Rica is well-equipped to handle snakebites; it’s home to the Clodomiro Picado Institute, a global leader in the research and development of antivenoms.

Founded in 1970, the Clodomiro Picado Institute distributes about 100,000 bottles of antivenom serum each year and works in cooperation with more than 30 countries.2

Transported to a hospital by the Costa Rican Coast Guard, Bethune received the antivenom, survived the snake bite and has since resumed his important conservation work in Costa Rica and elsewhere.

But not all situations have such happy endings: Each year, snakebite envenomings across the world kill 85,000 people and leave an additional 250,000 people with some kind of permanent injury.3

Costa Rica registers between 500 and 600 envenomings and about three deaths each year. An unknown number survive with other ongoing health issues.4

In 2017, the World Health Organization named snakebite envenomings a “neglected tropical disease” and allocated resources and promised funding to confront the issue “at a global level.”

Pete Bethune’s story, the work done at the Clodomiro Picado Institute, and the race to improve antivenoms are the topic of “Science vs. Snakes,” a podcast episode from 99% Invisible and Science Vs. We highly recommend you give the podcast a listen. You can find it at 99% Invisible’s website, on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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