Jean-Philippe Chippaux is a hands-on guy. Throughout his career, he has contributed to the prevention and treatment of several neglected tropical diseases in a number of countries in Africa and Latin America. Alongside this work for the French Research Institute for Development (IRD), he has devoted his attention over the past four decades to studying snakes and snake bites. Although his fascination with snakes started out as a hobby, it has now become one of his specialist research areas. He is currently on secondment from the IRD and is carrying out a study* with the Institut Pasteur aimed at improving an antivenom serum.
Jean-Philippe's links with the Institut Pasteur go way back to his early childhood. His father, Alain Chippaux, studied at the Military Medical School in Lyon, then the Pharo School for tropical medicine in Marseille. Alain began his career in "Dr. Jamot's Teams", tackling sleeping sickness in the Congo. Jean-Philippe's mother, Claude Chippaux-Hyppolite, was also a doctor. Both parents worked for the Institut Pasteur in Africa at a time of major change for the continent.
In 1955, when he was just two, the family set off for a first mission to the Congo, then in 1960 they moved to the Central African Republic. Jean-Philippe lived in Africa until he was twelve. His father was behind the creation of the Institut Pasteur de Bangui in the Central African Republic, then the Institut Pasteur de Côte d'Ivoire in Abidjan, where he served as director. When Jean-Philippe returned to France and finished high school, he decided to follow in his parents' footsteps and study medicine – but he had no intention of becoming a family physician in France. He was eager to get back to Africa.
First encounter with vipers, cobras and mambas...
From 1973 to 1979, Jean-Philippe worked at the Institut Pasteur de Côte d'Ivoire, where he met another snake enthusiast, Bernard Courtois, a technician in the virology laboratory. Together they set up a serpentarium composed of endemic species: vipers, cobras and mambas. At the same time, he began studying medicine in Côte d’Ivoire, before transferring to France.
In 1980, after finishing his MD, Jean-Philippe took several training courses to improve his knowledge and develop his expertise in public health and tropical medicine.
The following year he completed his national service in South America, at the medical entomology laboratory at the Institut Pasteur de la Guyane in Cayenne, French Guiana.
In 1985, he joined ORSTOM (the former name for the IRD). His first mission was to the city of Cotonou in Benin.
Diseases, countries and populations
For 25 years, his work took him from one country to the next – Benin, Cameroon, Niger, Senegal and Bolivia. His job was to identify which diseases were affecting local populations and to find the means and resources needed to distribute drugs to patients and implement local or regional prevention campaigns. In these world regions, developing preventive medicine for vector-borne diseases (diseases spread by mosquitoes or parasites) is crucial but challenging.
From 1989 to 1994, Jean-Philippe was assigned to the Pasteur Center in Cameroon, in Yaoundé, where he led the parasitology department. In this capacity, he worked in collaboration with Cassian Bon, head of the antivenom department at the Institut Pasteur in Paris. Together, they established lists of criteria that could be used to evaluate clinical trials of serums – one for Africa, the other to treat viper bites in France.
In 1991, Jean-Philippe defended his thesis for his PhD in Life Sciences and Public Health at Pierre & Marie Curie (Paris 6) University, and in 1993 he obtained his accreditation to supervise research (HDR).
From 1994 to 2000, he served as Director of CERMES, a medical and health research center in Niamey, Niger, and he took steps to incorporate the center into the Institut Pasteur International Network.
Alongside his work, as always, Jean-Philippe kept up his interest in snakes. He made a point of systematically noting any he came across, identifying them, and recording the number and any particular characteristics in a notebook. His extensive ophidian (snake-related) knowledge led him to draw up recommendations and guidelines for people and professions most exposed to snakes, to avoid the risk of bites as much as possible.
The main thing is understanding at what point and in what circumstances humans and snakes come into contact with each other. But we also need to identify the conditions that attract some snake species to a specific area and make them stay there," he explains. "I wanted to share some useful guidelines with farm owners. There are seasons in which snakes move around a lot, during their reproduction, and those are the times when humans are more likely to be exposed to them. Some professions also need to adopt best practices. For example, workers cleaning sugar cane plantations after harvest should wear appropriate protective clothing: boots, gloves and a hat.
Jean-Philippe has used his field knowledge to publish several books which list venomous species and offer advice on preventing and treating snake bites.
In late 2017, Jean-Philippe was assigned to the Center for Translational Science at the Institut Pasteur. He now works exclusively on ophidian and scorpion envenomation. In this role, he is responsible for analyzing the clinical data of 470 patient volunteers who have received antivenom treatment. The aim of this collaborative project with 14 medical centers throughout Cameroon is to precisely measure the efficacy of the existing serum and record any negative effects. A second research area involves finding new treatments for snake bites, since "we mustn't forget that some venoms can give rise to severe complications," he concludes.
This shift in Jean-Philippe's career has given him the opportunity to go back to Africa on a regular basis, nearly every month – especially to Cameroon, to monitor the clinical study, but also to various other countries, where he trains healthcare staff in treating envenomations and sets up new clinical and herpetological studies. It's a way for him to pursue his activities in Africa and combine his lifelong passion with his work.
In 2017, snake bites were recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a neglected disease, with incidence and mortality rates that are strongly underestimated in countries in the southern hemisphere. More than 315,000 bites and 7,000 deaths, as well as approximately 9,000 amputations, are reported annually in healthcare facilities in Sub-Saharan Africa, representing a particularly high socioeconomic burden.
Key dates in Jean-Philippe Chippaux's career
2017: Center for Translational Science, Institut Pasteur in Paris
2017: Member (Core Group) of the WHO Working Group on Snakebite Envenoming
2014: Officer of the National Order of Benin
2013: Elected as a Corresponding Member of the French Academy of Overseas Sciences
1993: Accreditation to supervise research (HDR), specializing in Public Health, from Pierre & Marie Curie (Paris 6) University
1991: PhD in Life Sciences and Health, specializing in Public Health, from Pierre & Marie Curie (Paris 6) University
1983: Winner of the Noury-Lemarié Award (French Society of Exotic Pathology)
1980: Doctor of Medicine: Marseille