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Once land of snake charmers, India is now world’s snakebite capital

Mahesh Trivedi

Published: Updated:

India was pooh-poohed as ‘the land of snake charmers’ not many moons ago but it has now been nicknamed ‘the snakebite capital of the world.’

With the long, limbless reptiles without eyelids hiding here, there and everywhere, the tropical country accounts for as many as 50,000 of the 125, 000 fatalities every year across the globe.

Indeed, the serpents coiled up in trees and fields as also under rocks and near water bodies or even in human-constructed habitats like basements, old houses, crawl spaces, wood poles and sheds fling their fatal fangs into some 250, 000 people worldwide year after year, including the record number of 160,000 Indians being stung and left maimed by the ophidians.

Snake awareness programs at Sundarvan in Ahmedabad attract many nature lovers on Sundays. (Supplied)
Snake awareness programs at Sundarvan in Ahmedabad attract many nature lovers on Sundays. (Supplied)

Financial burden

About 80 per cent of the colubrine attacks happen in the rural areas and the victims are males in the 20-40 age group with the result that the snakebites lead to a heavy financial burden—hospital bills and loss of wages--and psychological stress for the hapless victims.

The sudden increase in the number of snakebite cases during the recent floods in some states has also proved beyond doubt that the deadly adders are spread all over the country, ready to sink their teeth into the human flesh when provoked in the least.

Though the common victims are farm hands and plantation workers who accidentally put their hands or feet in dense bushes or step on the snake in the dark, incidents of these snakes-in-the-grass living in burrows nabbing at the extremities (hands and legs) of even sleeping villagers and passing city slickers are not uncommon.

According to Tej Daftari, a 21-year-old volunteer who has been conducting snake awareness programmes in Ahmedabad in the western Indian state of Gujarat, out of some 300 species of snakes found in India, only 62 are venomous or semi-venomous, and only four of them are responsible for 70 per cent of snakebite cases.

Visitors at the reptile house in the zoo in Ahmedabad. (Supplied)
Visitors at the reptile house in the zoo in Ahmedabad. (Supplied)

Impressive hood

The widely-distributed killer quartet comprises the smooth-scaled, black-eyed Common Krait, the Spectacled Cobra with an impressive hood, the deadliest, triangular-headed Russel’s Viper and Saw-scaled Viper which strikes with a lightning speed and produces a sizzling warning sound.

India’s highest mortality rate due to snakebites could be attributed to several factors, the shortage of anti-snake venom (ASV) being the chief reason. Poor access to health care services in the countryside, difficult transportation and consequent delay in ASV administration also lead to frequent deaths.

What’s more, wide species variation, poor compliance with treatment protocols, lack of public education and clear policy to deal with the problem, lack of information about simple measures of prevention, occupational hazard risks and inappropriate first-aid measures all magnify the risk.

Tej Daftari says that only four of the 62 venomous snakes are responsible for a majority of deaths due to snakebites. (Supplied)
Tej Daftari says that only four of the 62 venomous snakes are responsible for a majority of deaths due to snakebites. (Supplied)

Awareness shows

“A snakebite victim can survive for five hours but the golden (first) hour is of vital importance. With the passage of time, more venom gets bound to the tissues and is thus less manageable for neutralization by ASV,” explains Daftari, who has handled countless snakes at Ahmedabad’s Sundarvan, a one-of-a-kind leafy nature park which conducts awareness shows to sensitise the masses on the importance of snakes and their ecological role.

Surprisingly, despite the World Health Organisation declaring snakebite as a neglected tropical disease, the anguine menace has not become a potential health priority for India and remains a highly neglected area in basic health care across the country.

But as Dr R K Sahu, director of Ahmedabad Zoo, one of the oldest and largest in India, pointed out, apart from reptile houses and snake shows, non-government organisations have gone a good length to create awareness in the cities and the rural areas and thus helped in reducing the fatalities.

Serpents lying coiled up in their habitats bite 250,000 people worldwide every year. (Supplied)
Serpents lying coiled up in their habitats bite 250,000 people worldwide every year. (Supplied)

First initiative

Mumbai-based Snakebite Healing and Education Society, the first initiative in India which is solely dedicated to address snakebite- related issues, has been working with grassroot-level people, training rural health care personnel and assisting bite victims suffering from severe necrosis.

Experts say the time is also ripe for training the 800,000-odd snake charmers who were rendered jobless after live shows were banned in 1991 and 20,000 of these ‘madaris’ were dumped behind bars for cruelty in treating the reptiles that helped them earn their livelihood.

In other words, innocent deaths due to snakebites could soon be a thing of the past if a national policy is formulated and implemented to ensure prompt availability and effective use of ASV in the rural areas of the country.