INDIAN SNAKEBITES INITIATIVE
According to the “Million Deaths Study“ approximately 45000 human lives are lost to snakebites every year across India. These deaths occur due to various factors such as improper first aid, practices of faith healing, not reaching hospital on time and lack of preparedness to deal with snakebite emergencies in rural hospitals across the country.
Snakebites are a reality in Indian rural life where most of the people are engaged in farming, which feeds the rest of the nation. To make the equation more complex, snakes play an important role in pest control in the fields. Without rodent-eating snakes, damage to standing crops and stored grains would be disastrous.
Since rodents and snakes share the same space as the farmer and his family, encounters with snakes are inevitable.
Culturally, snakes are symbols of divine power in India and snakebites are often treated as a curse by the serpent gods rather than a medical situation. People thus prefer to approach a faith healer to cure the snakebite and the envenomated patient often loses the battle for life in the process. India is the largest producer of Anti Snake Venom (ASV) and treatment of snakebites is free of cost in government hospitals. Yet, the country tops snakebite charts across the world with five deaths every hour. The Indian Snakebite Initiative is an effort of civil society to counter these deaths across the country.
The Indian Snakebite Initiative is led by Mr. Romulus Whitaker, a renowned herpetologist from India, which is supported by a team of experts and institutions across the country. The mission is to reduce the snakebite deaths through scientific studies about venomous snakes, education and awareness on snakebite first aid and ensure that patients are taken to hospitals instead of faith healers, capacity building of healthcare workers and assisting the government’s efforts in providing free treatment to snake bite patients by supplementing ASV supply in rural areas etc.
Pithora is a small town in rural India in the state of Chhattisgarh - one of the lesser developed states in Central India. The town is surrounded by villages, with more than 90% of the population depending on agriculture and related activities. Most of them belong to tribal or marginalised communities and education and awareness levels are poor and access to medical facilities severely restricted.
Zero Snakebite Deaths @ Pithora - Our Pilot project
Anjali Health Centre is a small 20-bed not-for-profit hospital in Pithora which is a lifeline for about 50 villages in the area. The centre’s only doctor, Dr. Sr. Siji, has been handling cases in this hospital since 2000. On an average Dr. Siji attends 100-115 snakebite cases every year. Since inception of the project in 2013, the centre has already acquired a name for itself in the local communities as the only place where snakebites can be treated. Hence, the number of patients coming to the hospital has been increasing every year. But on the other hand, there are still a lot of victims who are not able to make it to the hospital in time.
Strengthening Medical Facilties: Anjali Health Centre (AHC) was already fighting the snakebite battle when Team Indian Snakes and TIES joined hands with them. The first step was to ensure steady supply of anti-venom, commonly known as ASV (anti snake venom) directly from the manufacturer. This was followed by capacity building of the doctors in snake bite management and procuring of a ventilator for life support.
We are happy to report that since inception of the project, there has been a dramatic reduction in snakebite deaths to Almost Zero (link to year-wise stats) at the centre.
Awareness Campaigns: Time is of the essence in saving a snakebite victim. The first 60 minutes after the bite (envenomation) is called the Golden Hour during which treatment is most effective. Ensuring timely arrival of the patient to the hospital requires the general population to understand the medical consequences of delay in treatment.
This is only possible through intensive awareness activities regarding snakes and snakebite, effects of envenomation, basic first aid, and how to avoid potentially dangerous encounters with snakes. Since this part of the project is about changing community mindsets and challenging age-old traditions, practices and superstitions, it is being handled extremely sensitively in partnership with influencers from within the community through workshops and outreach material in the form of posters and stickers in the local language. Since project inception, the team has conducted over 500 awareness workshops in village schools and community gatherings on Snake Behaviour and Snakebite First Aid to ensure that people know how to deal with snakebites.
Snake Rescue: The project also identifies a point person in each village, who will be trained to identify commonly found snakes, perform first aid and coordinate transportation of the victim to the hospital with minimal loss of time.
In 2016, Indiansnakes.org and TIES started a project to create awareness among the rural population in Baihar District of Madhya Pradesh. The famous Kanha Tiger Reserve is situated in this district which has most of its people living in small villages. The area has a good population of venomous and non-venomous snakes and snakebite cases are frequent in the region. Much of the rural population belongs to tribal communities and they prefer to treat snakebites with traditional healing methods which do not help venomous snakebites. The aim of this project is to connect with these communities in multiple ways and ensure that the snakebite victim reaches a suitable hospital as fast as possible.
Education and Awareness : Creating awareness about snakes and snakebites is the most important activity to undertake in a rural Indian scenario. We started the project with a survey in 2016 to understand the perception of people towards snakes and snakebites. Since then, the team has undertaken education and awareness sessions in schools, public functions and health camps. Mr. Sudarshan, a local resident, snake rescuer, and also a temporary employee with the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department is conducting these workshops interacting with the locals on various aspects of snakes and snakebites.
Snake Rescue : Under this project, Mr. Sudarshan is given resource support to conduct snake rescues in the project area. During the monsoon season, he gets multiple calls from people about snakes entering into their houses and he reaches out to ensure that the snake is safely removed from the house and released in a suitable area. The area has Common Cobra, Russell’s Viper, Banded Krait as the common venomous snakes and these rescue operations are good opportunities to spread awareness about snakes and snakebites. Since the project began, over a hundred snakes have been rescued and released back into their natural habitat with each rescue doubling as an awareness generation event.