Research interests and fieldwork

My principal research interests are in the fields of snakebite epidemiology, clinical toxinology and envenomation management, although I also have an avid interest in questions relating to taxonomy, biogeography, population genetics, animal behaviour and venom biochemistry, structure and function. These diverse fields have given me many opportunities to travel and work with venomous animals in different parts of the world, and while Australia may be my place of birth, and Australian reptiles hold a special place among my interests, it is the developing tropics with their amazing landscapes, cultures and biodiversity that hold the greatest attraction.

Papua New Guinea

My first visit to Papua New Guinea was in 1995 and in the years since I have developed a deep affection both for the country and its natural treasures, and for the people, who are truly the victims of bad press, for Papua New Guineans are, by-and-large among the friendliest and most genuine people I have met anywhere in the world. PNG is truly the "Land of the Unexpected", and anyone who visits here with an open-mind, warm smile and a sense of adventure cannot fail to be rewarded.

My original interest in PNG was in collecting the venoms of its dangerous snakes for other research groups, but in some of my first forays into the PNG bush I was abruptly and brutally confronted by the vastly different outcome after snakebite here, compared to back home in Australia, little more than 1.5 hours flying time to the South. In just one week outside Port Moresby 3 of 4 people who were brought to the local health centre near where I was staying, died. Two of them were young children, and the third was the young mother of 5 children, who died simply because there was no transport to take her to a bigger, better equipped hospital just two hours down the sorry excuse for a highway. Snakebite victims in PNG rarely die quick, clean deaths. Death when it comes, is usually the result of either upper airway obstruction (which leads to choking) or slow suffocation as powerful neurotoxins dismantle respiratory function.

There really is no despair greater than sitting and listening to another human being gasping for a breath that just will not come.

This huge contrast between the consequences of snakebite in Australia and PNG really came as a huge wake-up call to me. Having been the victim of my own carelessness on five occasions when I was working with venomous snakes back home, and having been the recipient of world-class medical care that saw me on feet again with negligible consequences, it shocked me enormously to realise that in a country so close to Australia, and so closely linked to us by history, the results of snakebite could be so dramatically different.

As a result I became interested in making a positive contribution to redress this inequity, and with, so would say, the fanciful notion that I might be able to use my knowledge and experience to save lives in Papua New Guinea. Returning to University in Australia, I proposed that I conduct a study of the incidence and mortality from snakebite in PNG, and with the help of friends back in Port Moresby, I was able to meet and convince the National Department of Health to approve my project and to sponsor my application for a research visa to undertake the study. From this humble start I have embarked on an increasingly more complex and wide ranging study of snakebite as information was accumulated, and new questions emerged.

In these pages I have tried to provide a brief overview of this work.

I'll also use these pages to share photographs and stories about some of the fieldwork I've had the opportunity to undertake with friends and colleagues. I hope that this site will both inform and educate, but please don't forget, the future of much of this work is threatened by a lack of formal funding. Donations to the Australian Venom Research Unit will help us save lives in PNG, so if you can spare even a few dollars, please do so.

Donations to the PNG Snakebite Research Project

Please forward donations to:

Department of Pharmacology, University of Melbourne
Cnr Grattan Street & Royal Parade
Parkville, Vic, 3010. Australia.

 


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Except where stated otherwise all site content David Williams (1998-2007)