In my years as a television features producer, I’ve been pitched every story imaginable. My litmus test is simple. Compelling characters and visuals are a must. If it’s a story no one has told, it goes to the top of the list. If the material makes my jaw drop and has the potential to create impactful change, I consider it a grand slam. Rarely are all those boxes checked.
When my phone rang in June 2015, I was told of a long-happening global health crisis with death tolls bigger than Ebola, affecting more than 80 countries throughout the tropics. Unlike Ebola, this topic never made the headlines. There was no overnight support from governments, the international health community or donors.
How could nearly 50,000 people a year in India be dying, a large portion of the estimated 138,000 annual, global deaths? How could hundreds of thousands more be left maimed or disabled? Why were families being plagued with debt to pay for treatment; that is if the specific medicine was even available when they arrived at rural hospitals?
I was beyond intrigued and began research. What did I find online? Literally nothing. There were no news articles, no television stories. Just a few scientific papers written by a handful of advocates working for years with little support. I surveyed friends and colleagues. Everyone was dumbfounded when I revealed the issue.
Venomous snakes were responsible for this never-ending crisis, claiming lives and limbs of the rural poor, from dollar-a-day-earning farmers working in rice paddies, to mothers tending to the homestead, to children out playing in field. I immediately billed snakebite as the ‘world’s most ignored way to die’.
In two short months, our documentary crew was on a plane off to Tamil Nadu, India and Central Kenya. Before departing, we pre-arranged interviews with specific victims and doctors, but nothing prepared us for the actuality on the ground. In two days at a hospital in Krishnagiri, India, a revolving door of critically injured snakebite patients filtered through. In nearby Erode, we asked villagers if they knew anyone who had been bitten, or a family who lost a loved one. Everyone knew someone. These scenarios would repeat over months of filming.
In Africa, we tried to understand why the largest antivenom manufacturer stopped producing quality antivenom. In India, we tried to grasp why there was abundant supply, but poor-quality serums forced doctors to scramble when the product caused anaphylactic shock.
Flash forward to now: our documentary, ‘Minutes to Die’ has been an essential ingredient to bring snakebite out of the shadows. Since its release, the film has been screened by hundreds of NGOs, university global health programs, ministries of health and leading players in the global health arena. Along with a robust social impact campaign, the goal has been to do more than watch a film: the goal is to help solve a solvable crisis.
Today, we’re pleased to offer the Indiaspora community a special opportunity to view the film in its entirety. (Just click on the video below).
The global involvement at all levels has been astonishing. I’ve watched Doctors Without Borders (MSF) become a key player advocating for policy and tackling the issue on the ground. Kofi Annan, in the year before his untimely passing, opened the right doors and along with governments of snakebite endemic countries, something incredible happened at the World Health Assembly this past May. Snakebite was officially added to the World Health Organization’s list of Neglected Tropical Diseases at the highest priority. A WHO roadmap on snakebite will be released in early 2019, calling for government and donor support to ensure quality antivenoms are assessed, produced and distributed.
It’s amazing how storytelling can ignite a movement.
It’s humbling to receive a photo from a group of students in Tamil Nadu, who after watching the film, have pledged to spread prevention messages throughout their villages. University global health students are now adding snakebite to their studies. NGOs are already on the ground conducting needed community-based surveys.
Just this past month, a UK-based foundation pledged three million pounds to set up clinical centers and conduct needed research in India, Myanmar and Vietnam.
Our goal now is to continue to support regional programs to bring ensure lasting change. In Chennai, India, the Irula tribe has long been responsible for gathering venoms of Indian snakes. They collect 80% of the venom used by nine Indian antivenom manufacturers. Yet, their machinery, facilities and practices are in serious need of upgrades. A relatively small investment in them would improve the quality of the collection process and in turn, immediately improve the production of life-saving medicines throughout India.
Snakebite isn’t an impossible issue to solve. The movement may not have garnered overnight support like Ebola, but the right wheels are turning at just the right time. And what an honor of a lifetime it’s been to tell the story.
James Reid is a nine-time Emmy winning television producer and the writer and director of the documentary film Minutes to Die. He currently works for the San Francisco-based Lillian Lincoln Foundation, producers of Minutes to Die and passionate supporters of snakebite impact work.