India Is Ignoring a Nightmare Snakebite Massacre

Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway / The Daily Beast
NEW DELHI - A rush of deadly snakebite attacks is sweeping India, killing tens of thousands every year - and so far the government's response has been to ignore, play down and cover up the crisis.
A 2020 study based on verbal autopsies suggests that an average of nearly 58,000 Indian citizens die from snakebites each year. In contrast, the country's government reports ridiculously low numbers: In 2018, Minister of Health and Family Welfare Ashwini Kumar Choubey said there had been only 689 snake-related deaths in India that year - a fraction of those in the study mentioned number and one that any expert would quickly shy away from.
Shashikant Dubey, 28, was working in his rice fields in Niwari, a small rural district in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, last month when he suddenly felt a burning sensation in his hand. "The pain was so great that I felt like someone had skinned my hand," Dubey told The Daily Beast.
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At first he thought a scorpion had stung him, but when his hand started to turn black he realized that he had been bitten by a venomous snake. As he was growing up, Dubey had often seen people die in his village after being bitten by snakes. Instead of a hospital, villagers were often taken to a local quack who bathed them in milk and water in the hopes that their deity would please (in Hindu culture milk is considered purifying) and their lives would be saved.
But when a vegetable vendor in the village died last year after the quack refused to allow her family to be hospitalized, an aversion to tradition began to grow in Dubey's community.
“This death stuck in my memory unconsciously. So I immediately planned to go to the hospital rather than the village nonsense, ”Dubey said. But the nearest hospital with access to anti-poison is more than 10 km from his village, and Dubey was advised by other villagers to go deep, cut his hand and let the 'dirty' blood out until he managed to admit to rush to a doctor.
When he was admitted to the hospital, his blood oxygen saturation had dropped significantly and his condition had worsened. Over the next few days, he was injected with 40 doses of anti-poison vials.
Still, Dubey was lucky. He survived. But Salman Qamar's 24-year-old friend Akhilesh Thapa wasn't.
“Akhilesh was sleeping in his house when a snake bit him. It was night and we couldn't arrange transportation to take him to the hospital straight away. And when we finally did, it was too late and he died on the way [to the hospital], ”Qamar, a resident of the Bettiah area near the India-Nepal border, told The Daily Beast.
Qamar says such incidents are all too common in his village.
“Last year a lady who lived near my house went to the bathroom at night and was bitten by a snake. It was during the monsoons and it was dark. When the snake bit her it thought it was an insect, ”he said. “Because of the darkness she couldn't see that it was a snake and then slept. During the night the poison spread through her body and she eventually died, ”explained Qamar.
There are many reasons for India's snakebite crisis, including the lack of first aid facilities, reliance on "spiritual healers" or quacks, and an overwhelming population living near agricultural fields where snakes hunt rodents. Another factor is India's reverence for snakes: Hindus consider Shiva, one of the most important deities in Hinduism, to be "the Lord of the Serpents". when dealing with snakes at a religious festival.
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“I get eight to ten rescue calls every day. Some days it can be up to 15 or 20 calls a day, ”Surya Keerthi, a conservationist and public educator who has saved more than 6,000 snakes in the past three years, told The Daily Beast. if they accidentally step on snakes which they then bite. "
According to experts, the lack of basic health centers near these villages is one of the reasons for the many victims, as patients cannot get medical help quickly enough.
"People always waste a lot of time getting to medical facilities, which leads to many deaths," said Avinash Visvanathan, general secretary of Friends of Snake Society, an Indian nonprofit that is dedicated to protecting snakes. “And there are a lot of quacks and faith healers who are wasting even more time, and victims usually go to these miracle healers and quacks before they go to medical facilities. This considerable delay between the snakebite and the time of 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 non-poisonous, four very dangerous ones - the Indian cobra, the common krait, the Russell viper, and the sawscale viper - kill large numbers of Indians each year.
Visvanathan believes the number of snake-related cases is being grossly underestimated because the government is making no effort to properly document the cases or make the data available to researchers and experts working on snake bite control.
Dealing with this crisis will not be an easy task. "First it has to be notifiable, then we can only get a real picture," says Visvanathan. A reportable illness means that doctors, whether in government or private hospitals, must report all cases of death from snake bites to the administration. Experts say it's easier for the government to hide numbers if it's not made a reportable disease.
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 made notifiable. “So we have data on tuberculosis, cholera and other diseases. We have even made rabies a notifiable disease, but not snakebites, ”says Kadam.
The lack of resources and the stunted distribution of anti-toxins in rural hospitals is another problem. "The situation is worsening because of the lack of equipment and trained staff in government primary health centers," says Visvanatha.
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Doctors in the country also say there is a lack of awareness among the masses about seeking relief, which dramatically increases the causality numbers. “The overwhelming majority of cases are asymptomatic and are bitten by non-venomous snakes. Nevertheless, we have many victims and illnesses due to a lack of awareness, ”says Dr. Ramachandra Kumar, a government doctor from Nalanda Medical College and Hospital in the east Indian state of Bihar.
“We see the snake-bitten patients suffer other injuries like cuts and bruises that make the problem worse. To get the blood out, people make cuts in the snake bite area with all available accessories like knives and stilettos. They even apply pressure by tying a cloth near the bite to prevent blood from getting to other parts of the body, ”explains Kumar that these DIY treatments often lead to further complications.
According to Visvanathan, there is no end in sight to the snakebite crisis in India without government support.
"The main problem with the snakebite is that we actually lack data, we don't have baseline data, and we don't have the mechanism to gauge the severity of the problem," he said. "The government is sitting on it for some strange reason."
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Ashwini Kumar Choubey
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