Snakebites contribute to a staggering 46,000 deaths each year in India– a number that will only increase if the issue continues to go unaddressed. Contributing to about 5% of all deaths due to injury and nearly 0.5% of all deaths each year in India, snakebite is a huge public health issue requiring urgent attention.
Sadly, most snakebite deaths go unreported, victims are not aware of the proper medical treatment necessary to treat snake bites, it is difficult to access antivenom, and many of these deaths are avoidable in the first place. A majority of snakebite victims work in farms and plantations with a high density of venomous snakes. Other than the emotional aspects of the loss, the economic burden from losing an earning member of the family is significant. Survivors who sustain permanent physical disability as a result of the snake bite become a liability to their families, and are subject to social stigma.
The immediate handling of snakebites is a prominent issue. Frequently, victims do not seek appropriate treatment, either due to a preference for traditional healers or due to lack of awareness of necessary treatment. When they do go to a hospital for treatment, they may not be able to afford it as antivenom is expensive. Treatments can get even more complicated due to the particular effects of bites from different snakes- ranging from severe bleeding disorders to respiratory distress/failure. This raises the need for multi-specialty hospital care, which is frequently unavailable or unaffordable.
While public health reform is certainly necessary, the most effective method of addressing snakebites is community education. The need of the hour is awareness, at a community level, of how to prevent snakebites and to avoid death / disability as a result of snakebite. Learning about local snakes, their habitats, and their behaviour, along with knowledge of appropriate first aid measures, can prevent a large number of the 46,000 deaths from snakebite each year.
What do rural communities do?
Most people believe that killing snakes will keep them safe. Thousands of snakes are killed every year but we still have 46,000 deaths per annum. Clearly, this isn’t working. Why? The most responsible species (spectacled cobra, common krait, Russell’s viper and saw-scaled viper) are highly adaptive and are found in higher densities in agricultural landscapes due to the high availability of food – rats and mice.
These venomous snakes are dangerous but ironically we need them. They are important;
- Ecological – Important middle order predators, prey species for many predators, serve as indicator species allowing researchers to assess the productivity and stability of a particular ecosystem.
- Economical – Rats and mice destroy up to 30% of total agricultural production in India. Rodents also directly and indirectly spread many diseases. The ‘farmland’ snake species feed almost exclusively on rodents keeping the rodent population in check.
- Medical – Proteins in snake venom are medically useful in synthesizing various drugs like analgesic (painkillers), antimicrobial, preventive medicines for heart attack and strokes. Many more helpful properties are continually being researched.
The big 4 venomous snakes of India, responsible for majority of snakebite deaths in India.
While antivenom is prepared using the venoms of the four species listed above, no antivenom produced in India uses venom of the other, related species.
The only feasible mitigation is to learn to live with them safely, learn proper snakebite management measures including first aid, and using modern medical facilities for treatment. Snakes bite only to defend themselves when they are accidentally threatened. Majority of the snakebite victims either put their hands on or close to the snakes while harvesting, or step on them unknowingly. Snakes live in certain habitats familiar to them and have a typical way of life. When rural communities are aware of this, they can avoid getting bitten by taking simple precautionary safety measures. This is similar to how we prevent many road accidents by following safety protocols.
We are implementing preventive strategies through community education
- Snakebite prevention (Click here for video; video now available in various regional languages)
- Snakebite first aid
- Safe coexistence
We appeal to all stakeholders to actively participate in this initiative and offer mitigation measures to collectively reduce the number of bites and related deaths in Gujarat. We look forward to working with everyone involved to effectively minimize snake-bite deaths in Gujarat and the rest of India.