Snakebites claim approximately 50,000 lives every year across India, making our country the global capital of snakebite deaths. Despite the situation, there is not much done to address this issue. In May 2019, the WHO has announced its road map towards 2030 with an aim to reduce snakebite deaths by 50% with India being a priority area.
The snakebite problem is not urban; the victims are often from villages, and their deaths do not make any headlines and often go unreported. The truth is, many of the victims don’t even reach a hospital to make it into the hospital records.
Why so many snakebite deaths?
Across India, there are about 300 species of snakes. About 50 of them are venomous, with 20 having potentially dangerous venom. There are four common venomous snakes found across the country – Saw-Scaled Viper, Common Krait, Russell’s Viper and Common Cobra which are collectively responsible for more than 95% of the snakebite deaths.
Most of the snakebites are accidental in nature when an unsuspecting person instigates a snake to bite in self-defence. Snakes follow rats as rats are their favourite food. Following their food, snakes enter into rural households, find dark corners of the house as a good place to rest. When a startled person finds the snake inside the house, they panic and accidentally hurt the snake which causes them to attack.
Very often, rural farmers suffer from snakebites while working on the field. Absence of proper footwear makes them more susceptible to being attacked by snakes that are hidden in the crops.
Kraits are nocturnal snakes who have a habit of crawling into beds. They try to warm their bodies with the heat of sleeping humans. Often, a movement by the person will press the snake, and it will strike with its tiny fangs injecting a lethal neurotoxic venom into the person, which will slowly kill the person in sleep.
Few available resources
Snakebites are accidents, and no one is fully prepared to deal with them. The lack of apt awareness gives fraudulent quacks an opportunity to exploit gullible people and make money out of their misery. Lack of availability of resources is another problem faced by the government hospitals.
According to the medical policies, anti-venom should be available free of cost in all government hospitals across the country and the treatment for snakebite is totally free. But in reality, many rural hospitals do not have anti-venom stock, or trained medical expertise or life-supporting equipment to manage a snakebite patient.
The number of snake envenomed deaths can be reduced if the intervention is made in the right manner and at the right time. This is the biggest challenge we face across the country, and there is a huge need for civil society to assist the government in this mission.
The Indian Snakebite Initiative, headed by a team of committed experts, is a dedicated mission towards the reduction of snakebites across the country. The activities undertaken reach the far and wide corners of India, including the rural areas where such outreach can have serious impact on the ground. The aim for the initiative is to reduce snakebite deaths by 50% across India by 2030. The mission also means to cover one million people from non-urban communities through snakebite envenomation awareness workshops across the country.
This column is from our quarterly print magazine. To grab a copy, click here.