Doctors Without Borders to field test Czech researcher’s snakebite app

Photo: Jasper Nance, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

According to the World Health Organization, snakebites claim more lives each year than do all other “neglected tropical diseases” combined. This month, Doctors without Borders starts using a mobile application co-developed by a Czech researcher to identify deadly snake species on the spot.

Photo: Jasper Nance,  Flickr,  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Lukáš Picek,  photo: Czech Radio

More than 140,000 people die every year from snake bites, the vast majority of them in developing nations of sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia. Another 400,000 people are left permanently disfigured or disabled by serpents.

To draw attention to that crisis, in 2017 the WHO added envenomation – or poisoning by snake venom – to the United Nations’ list of “neglected tropical diseases”. And this year, the Institute of Global Health in Geneva held a competition to develop computer software to help health workers tackle the problem.

The winning team – of Lukáš Picek, a doctoral student at the Faculty of Applied Sciences at the University of West Bohemia, and his business partner Miroslav Valan of Stockholm University – had already sophisticated mobile apps that can identify thousands of species of mushroom, and scores of animals caught in African “photo traps”.

Picek says their latest mobile app, which is being field tested this June by Doctors Without Borders, can recognize about 800 species of snake and correctly identify the exact one nine times out of ten. In part, it does this by crosschecking phone GPS location.

“After downloading the application, you simply take a picture of the snake and it determines what kind it is, whether it is poisonous or not. At the same time, it shows similar species with which it may be confused.

“So, within a fraction of a second, you get the information about the snake, and then you will get a confirmation from a human expert as to whether that is the right snake and if not what species it is.”

Photo: Martina Klímová,  Czech Radio

SvampeAtlas, the award-winning mushroom-recognition app that he co-developed, can now distinguish between 2,500 species of forest fungi, hundreds of which are just as deadly as the most venomous snake.

“It recognises all mushrooms that can be found in the Czech Republic and Denmark. The mobile app and online site automatically recognize the species, and for many with practically 100 percent certainty, so there is no need to burden mycologists, which will save them time.”

Time, of course, is a more precious commodity when it comes to treating snakebites, as people are generally unwitting victims of such attacks, rather than collectors. And unlike mushrooms, snakes must be caught or killed before they can be photographed.

Photo: Nifer Kilakila,  Flickr,  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Lukáš Picek says in the coming months, their global snakebite mobile app will be diversified for use in specific regions, so as to grow local databases and make the system ever more precise.

“There are four types of snakes in India, for example, that are the most confused or cause the most bite injuries. The second phase consists in specifying the system for regions and responding to specific developments.”