Pet Peeve: Price of Antidote to Snake Venom in Israel Soars

The price hike essentially means only rich animal owners will be able to get their hands on the pricey antivenom for snake bites.

Israeli animal lovers, beware: If your precious pony or dearest dog gets bitten by the Israeli viper (Vipera palaestinae), you will have to shell out NIS 5,000 for the antidote that will save its furry life, thanks to a price increase approved in recent days by the Health Ministry that has multiplied the antivenom cost by about five times.

“This has put us in a really helpless position,” said veterinarian Dr. Gil Shavit who fears his clients' response to the hefty price tag, which essentially makes the cure available largely to wealthy pet-owners.

During this time of the year, as winter gives way to summer, there is an upsurge in the number of animals stung by the Israeli viper. Veterinarian Dr. Giora Avni, who treats mostly horses, said that a bitten horse must get the antidote. "Without it, about half the horses bitten will die," he said. "Death occurs about two weeks [after the bite], caused by secondary complications, so we must give the injection close to the time of the snakebite. We cannot wait too long.”

Producing the antivenom is a long and costly process. First, the venom must be milked from the snakes and injected in increasingly large doses into horses intended for this purpose. The venom's presence in the horses’ blood stimulates the production of antibodies, and after a few days, blood is taken from the horses and the antivenom filtered from it.

The production of the antivenom is intended mainly for human beings, but over the years, doses of antivenom have also been used to treat animals. Over the past several years, as Haaretz has reported, there has been a continued shortage of antivenom for animals. The number or pets and livestock that have died from snakebites is unknown, as data isn't collected from veterinary clinics. However, veterinarians and pet breeders say they have fought for the antivenom to save their beloved pets.

In 2009, Health Ministry officials promised that after the deal was signed with the Kamada pharmaceutical company to develop antivenom to treat snakebites, the production was upgraded to higher professional standards – which was meant to shorten the process and make it more efficient. Ministry officials also said that until the required amount of antivenom was produced, human beings would be given preference. Despite the promises, the required supply of antivenom was not completed in 2011.

Now the price of a single bottle of antivenom has soared from about NIS 1,000 to NIS 4,800. Dr. Shavit, who owns a clinic in Yesud Hama’ala in the Upper Galilee and treats livestock and pets, said, “This is scandalous. Who can afford such costly treatment? Not only that – it's also hard for the veterinarian to keep a supply worth tens of thousands of shekels in the clinic.”

Dr. Avni agrees that the situation is problematic. Since he used up the last two bottles of antivenom he had left, the owners of the next horse bitten by a snake will have to decide whether to spend thousands of shekels to save it. He said that the total cost of the treatment is about NIS 7,000 since medications must be administered together with the antivenom. “It looks like only horses owned by wealthy people will stay alive,” he said.

Dr. Avni also notes that the high price of antivenom would prevent him from keeping a supply at his clinic and that he will have to send clients to buy it themselves. He also said that in some parts of the country, the long distance between clients' homes and places carrying the antivenom could cost the animal its life.

Dr. Avi also raised a moral question in light of the fact that horses are used to produce the antivenom. “The horses suffer quite a bit in the process,” he said. “They work for human beings; shouldn’t human beings care for the horses and save their lives? I think we have an obligation toward them.”

In response, Health Ministry officials said that the price of the antivenom is identical whether it is used to treat animals or for human beings, while for human beings it is subsidized. “Immunization against snake venom includes the cost of keeping the horses, the compound where the snakes are raised and milked, maintenance of the compound, production and more,” a ministry spokesman said. “The price of a bottle is NIS 4,935, and after a discount, it is NIS 4,060 including VAT.” (It is not clear where the additional thousand shekels that the veterinarians are required to pay go).

The ministry spokesman added, “The price increase has to do with this is a complex product that requires undergoes many processes, all of which have changed significantly recently to meet current GMP standards.”