A cobra in India. Photo: Getty
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No one will die of a snakebite in Britain this summer. Why?

The most recent snakebite death in the UK was in 1975. If only that were true elsewhere: snakebites kill up to 94,000 people and necessitate hundreds of thousands of amputations every year.

Here’s a prediction for the summer that’s much more reliable than anything you’ll get from the Met Office: in Britain, no one will die of a snakebite. The only venomous snakes on these shores are adders. Not only are their numbers in decline but they are timid and bite as a last resort. Each year, roughly a hundred people are bitten by adders in the UK but as few as 12 people have died in the past century as a result. The most recent death was in 1975.

If only that were true elsewhere. Snakebites kill up to 94,000 people and necessitate hundreds of thousands of amputations every year. Children and young people are most likely to be bitten and in some countries snakes kill as many people as Aids. Globally, the number of fatalities is up to 30 times that of landmines.

One of the biggest problems in treating snakebite is recognising which antivenom is needed. The mechanism by which the venom causes paralysis varies from species to species and giving the wrong antivenom can be worse than useless. Often, victims have to wait for the results of blood tests before the appropriate antivenom can be identified. But research published last month in the Journal of Tropical Medicine shows that it might be possible to create a universal antivenom that can be administered straight away as a simple nasal spray.

Before this paper was published, the universal antivenom neostigmine had already passed a couple of tests. In 2013, researchers injected a volunteer with a venom mimic, which caused a creeping paralysis that moved from the eyes to the diaphragm, causing difficulty in breathing. Twenty minutes after administration of the neostigmine nasal spray, the patient had completely recovered.

The second test was not a controlled experiment. It was carried out on a woman who was hooked up to a life-support machine after a snakebite in India. She had received 30
doses of antivenom but still had facial paralysis. The nasal spray relieved this after 30 minutes. Two weeks later, she was back at work.

In the latest study, mice were the unfortunate victims. They were given a lethal dose of cobra venom, followed by a single nasal dose of neostigmine ten minutes later. Two-thirds survived. The spray also allowed mice given ten times the lethal dose of cobra venom to survive six times longer than they otherwise would have. This suggests that even when it is not an instant cure, the spray could give people time to get to a hospital.

There’s still a long way to go, however. The researchers weren’t able to check the effectiveness of the nasal spray against different kinds of venom due to “limitations of funding”. Of even more concern is their admission that: “Both the efficacy and optimal uses of . . . therapies for neurotoxic snakebite remain unproven even after decades of widespread use.” In other words, hospitals have antivenoms but nobody is doing the studies that will show us how best to use them and how effective they are.

That’s almost certainly because 98 per cent of snakebite victims live in poverty, and treatment (and thus research) is largely paid by the victims or their family. Many bite victims are left disfigured or unable to work because of amputation or permanent paralysis and have to take out loans, sell livestock or crops and even pull their children out of school to get the cash they need. The World Health Organisation has called snakebites a “neglected threat to public health”. It is time for that neglect to end.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times