NEW DELHI – A wave of deadly snakebite attacks sweeps across India killing tens of thousands every year – and so far the government’s response has been to ignore, trivialize and completely cover up crisis.
A 2020 study, based on verbal autopsies, suggests that on average, nearly 58,000 Indian citizens die each year from snakebites. In contrast, the country’s government reports ridiculously low numbers: In 2018, Minister of Health and Family Welfare Ashwini Kumar Choubey said only 689 snake-related deaths had occurred in India this year- there, a fraction of the figure referenced in the study, and one that any expert would quickly regret.
Shashikant Dubey, 28, was working in his rice fields last month in Niwari, a small rural district in the state of Madhya Pradesh, in central India, when he suddenly felt a burning sensation in his hand. âThe pain was such that I felt like someone had scratched my hand,â Dubey told The Daily Beast.
At first he thought a scorpion had stung him, but as his hand started to turn black, he realized he had been bitten by a poisonous snake. Growing up, Dubey had often seen people in his village die after being bitten by snakes. Instead of a hospital, villagers were often taken to a local charlatan who bathed them in milk and water, hoping that it would please their deity (in Hindu culture, milk is considered to have purifying qualities. ) and their lives would be saved.
But last year, when a village vegetable vendor died after the quack refused to let his family take him to hospital, a sense of revulsion against the tradition began to grow in the community of Dubey. .
âThis death was unconsciously etched in my mind. So I immediately planned to go to the hospital rather than the village charlatan, âDubey said. But the nearest hospital with access to the anti-venom is more than 10 km from his village, and Dubey was advised by other villagers cut off his hand and let the “dirty” blood flow until ‘he manages to rush to a doctor.
“The venom spread throughout her body and she eventually died.“
By the time he was taken to hospital, his blood oxygen saturation levels had dropped significantly and his condition had worsened. Over the next few days, she was injected with 40 doses of anti-venom vials.
Still, Dubey was lucky. He survived. But Salman Qamar’s 24-year-old friend Akhilesh Thapa was not.
“Akhilesh was sleeping at his house when a snake bit him. It was dark and we couldn’t immediately organize transport to take him to the hospital. And finally when we did, it was too late and he died on the way [to the hospital]”Qamar, a resident of the Bettiah region near the Indo-Nepal border, told The Daily Beast.
Qamar says such incidents are all too common in his village.
âLast year a lady who lived near my house went to the bathroom overnight and a snake bit her. It was during the monsoon and it was dark, so when the snake bit her she thought it was a bug, âhe said. âDue to the darkness, she couldn’t realize it was a snake and then she fell asleep. During the night, the venom spread throughout her body and she eventually died, âQamar explained.
There are many reasons for the snakebite crisis in India, including the lack of first aid services, reliance on “spiritual healers” or charlatans, and an overwhelming population living near agricultural fields where snakes come to hunt rodents. Another factor is India’s reverence for snakes: Hindus consider Shiva, one of the main deities of Hinduism, to be âthe lord of snakesâ. At a festival last month, a 25-year-old man in the eastern Indian state of Bihar died while handling snakes at a religious holiday.
âI get eight to ten calls for help every day. Some days it goes up to 15 or 20 calls a day, âSurya Keerthi, a wildlife conservationist and public educator who has saved more than 6,000 snakes in the past three years, told The Daily Beast. âMost of the time what happens is when farmers harvest or plant the crops, that’s when they accidentally step on snakes which then bite them.
According to experts, the scarcity of basic health centers near these villages is one of the reasons for the many casualties, as patients cannot get medical care quickly enough.
âPeople invariably waste a lot of time trying to get to medical facilities, resulting in a lot of deaths,â says Avinash Visvanathan, secretary general of Friends of Snake Society, an Indian nonprofit dedicated to the protection of human beings. snakes. âAnd there are a lot of charlatans and religious healers who waste even more time and victims usually end up going to these religious healers and healers before they go to medical facilities. This considerable delay between the snakebite and the time of taking the treatment is the main reason why there are so many complications and so many deaths. “
Although the majority of the 300 species of snakes found in India are not poisonous, four very dangerous species – the Indian cobra, Common Krait, Russell’s viper, and sawscale viper – kill large numbers of Indians each. year.
Visvanathan believes the number of snake-related cases is severely under-reported because the government does not make the effort to properly document the cases or make the data available to researchers and experts working on bite mitigation. snake.
“The government, for some strange reason, is sitting on it.“
Dealing with this crisis will not be an easy task. âFirst and foremost, you have to make it a reportable disease, only then can we have a real picture,â says Visvanathan. Making it a reportable disease means that doctors, whether in public or private hospitals, must report all cases of snakebite death to the administration. Experts say not making it a reportable disease makes it easier for the government to hide the numbers.
Priyanka Kadam, president and founder of the Snakebite Healing and Education Society in Mumbai, believes the Indian Ministry of Health’s narrow perspective is that only communicable diseases should be declared reportable. âSo we have data on tuberculosis, cholera and other diseases. We have even now made rabies a reportable disease, but not snakebites, âsays Kadam.
Another problem is the lack of resources and the delay in distributing anti-venom to rural hospitals. âDue to the lack of equipment and trained personnel in government-run primary health centers, the situation has worsened,â says Visvanatha.
Doctors nationwide also say there is a lack of awareness among the masses on how to seek immediate help, which dramatically increases the number of causalities. âThe overwhelming majority of cases are asymptomatic, bitten by non-poisonous snakes. However, we have many victims and morbidities due to the lack of awareness, âexplains Dr Ramachandra Kumar, government doctor at Nalanda Medical College and Hospital in the Indian state of Bihar, in eastern India.
âWhat we are seeing is that the snakebitten patients suffer from other injuries like cuts and bruises that make the problem worse. In order to ooze blood, people make cuts around the bite area of ââthe snake. snake using all the accessories available like knives and stilettos. They even apply pressure by tying a cloth near the bite to prevent blood from reaching other parts of the body, âKumar explains, explaining that these methods Do-it-yourself treatments often lead to other complications.
According to Visvanathan, without government support, India’s snakebite crisis is not in sight.
âThe major problem with the snakebite is that we lack the data, we don’t have the baseline data, and we don’t have the mechanism to capture the severity of the problem,â he said. “The government, for some strange reason, is sitting on it.”