India is ignoring its deadly snakebite crisis

Every year, venomous snakes kill thousands in India. But little attention is given to this “poor man’s disease.”

Published : Mar 11, 2023 16:16 IST

The King cobra is one of the better known venomous snakes in India,

The King cobra is one of the better known venomous snakes in India, | Photo Credit: RealityImages/Zoonar/picture alliance

Himar Jatt was busy with his daily routine of grazing his camels in the dense mangroves of Bachau, a small district in the Gujarat state in India, when he suddenly felt a pain in his left foot.

This was not the first time that the 37-year-old had been bitten by a snake, it was his third encounter in two years. This time, however, the pain was excruciating and his foot started to turn pale.

When his foot began turning black, he realized that he had been bitten by a venomous snake. He called his younger brother, who took him to a temple where a local priest started treating him by using a piece of cloth. For two hours, he rubbed the wet cloth on his foot and recited mantras but to no effect.

As he reached home, he lost his consciousness, and blood started oozing out from his mouth. The next morning, his brother took him to hospital in Rajkot, three hours away from his home. He did not anticipate that he would end up staying there for 10 days. He was injected with dozens of anti-venom doses before surgery. “I was counting my last days in the hospital and the pain was so intense that I was just shouting. I have never felt anything like this in my life” he told DW. The snake poison spread throughout his body and left him paralysed for almost two months.

Tens of thousands dying each year

Jatt’s neighbour Baruah Bhil, a farmer, was also bitten by a snake in a similar incident last year. He was dead by the following day. He had visited a quack doctor for treatment and returned home without taking any medication. His sudden death left the whole village stunned and gave rise to a deep sense of repulsion against treatments from local priests, Himar told DW.

According to a 2020 study, an average of nearly 58,000 Indian citizens die each year due to snakebites. But experts say that actual numbers are likely higher because of unreported cases.

Doctors and public health experts cite several reasons for the snakebite crisis, including holy reverence for the animal, lack of access to immediate first aid facilities, reliance on “spiritual healers” and a large share of the rural population living close to agricultural fields.

There are over 300 snake species in India, of which 62 are identified as venomous and semi-venomous. But the most dangerous ones include the common krait, the Russell’s viper and the Indian cobra, which kill many people each year.

Fighting a lonely battle

For the last 15 years, Dayal Majumdar, who is one of the country’s leading experts on snakebite treatment, has been visiting the small villages in the Radha Nagar area of West Bengal where numerous people have died from snakebites.

During his visits to the villages, he witnessed an acute shortage of antivenom and a scarcity of healthcare facilities, which he believes is the main factor in the high number of casualties. “In India, snakebites don’t receive a lot of attention because it is considered a poor man’s disease, affecting farmers and people in rural areas,” he told DW.

Majumdar says addressing this deadly crisis is not an easy task and believes urgent government intervention is very much needed. He campaigns in villages across West Bengal state and urges people to seek immediate treatment at the nearest medical centre if bitten. During his tours, he discourages people from traditional treatment by faith healers or local priests.

“The deaths related to snakebite cases are highly under-reported across the state and they don’t get reported properly by government or hospitals, which makes it difficult for doctors like me to tackle this crisis,” he told DW.

“According to a 2020 study, an average of nearly 58,000 Indian citizens die each year due to snakebites. But experts say that actual numbers are likely higher because of unreported cases.”

In 2017, the World Health Organization designated poisoning by snakebite a neglected tropical disease. In 2022, the agency launched a global initiative to halve the number of snakebite deaths and disabilities by 2030. However, in India, it is still not categorised as a notifiable disease, which plays down its severity and keeps it out of official government reports.

Raising awareness

Some experts say there is a lack of awareness among the public about how to seek immediate help. Avinash Visvanathan, general secretary of the Friends of Snake Society, an Indian non-profit organisation working for the conservation of snakes in India, runs awareness programmes across the country to educate people on how to deal with snakebites.

Visvanathan believes snakebites are a serious health issue that has been neglected in India. He is advocating to make it a notifiable disease. “The first thing we need to do is to make snakebites a notifiable disease as it will help us understand the extent of the snake crisis in India. It will also help in shifting the government’s focus toward it. That would lead to urgently needed intervention.” Visvanathan said.

Following his experience being bitten by a venomous snake, Himar Jatt and fellow villagers are now fighting to get a local medical centre equipped with antivenom medicines. For them, this would mean access to immediate, professional treatment, and the end of the snakebite scourge on their village.

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