Introduction

Snakes are an essential component of the ecology of the Indian landscape especially because of the high abundance of rodents resulting from the conversion of forest land to agriculture. Without rodent-eating snakes, damage to standing crops and stored grains would be disastrous. Snakes are also part of Indian culture and mythology thus revered as a symbol of supernatural power and respected and worshipped by communities. At the same time snakes which are venomous, cause human deaths and these deaths across the country together exceed 45-50000 every year. Snakes and snake bites are part of the Indian rural life where most of the people reside and feed the rest of the country by producing food. Mitigation of snake bites and also ensuring the co-existence of snakes and people is a major challenge which is not taken in an efficient and all-encompassing manner across the country.

The Problem

  1. Rats and mice infest homes and fields, a major attractant for the snakes causing most of the deaths. Russell’s vipers, cobras, kraits, and saw-scaled vipers are the ‘Big Four Dangerous Snakes of India’ and are very abundant in some areas.
  2. Villagers often sleep on the floor or ground, walk barefoot to and from crop fields at dawn and dusk and often don’t use flashlights at night—this puts them at great risk of snakebite.
  3. Antivenom is the only sure cure for snakebite but many people still believe in bogus traditional, herbal and superstitious ‘remedies’. Read an article written by Mr.Kedar Bhide.
Read here
  4. But antivenom is often not available where it is needed—in the rural Primary Health Centers.

At the same time, millions of snakes are indiscriminately killed because of myths and ignorance of snake identity and habits. There’s also an abysmal lack of knowledge of first aid and treatment of snakebite at the village level.

A community-based survey of snakebite envenoming in West Bengal found that only 7.2% of all snakebite deaths were officially reported and in this study only 22.9% of patients attended hospital. The impact of snake envenoming is far-reaching, with long-term morbidity and disability contributing to the cycle of poverty in many communities.

The Registrar General of India’s “Million Deaths Study” has established the startling and tragic fact that close to fifty thousand people die due to snakebite in India each year. There are another 1.4 to 2.8 million non-fatal cases and tens of thousands of snakebite survivors are permanently disabled and traumatized. The data suggests that 97% of snakebite fatalities are rural, and that 77% of them occur outside a health facility. In this situation, it is clear that both people and snakes are losers. Ref: Read here

This project is a multi-layered approach to the problem of snakebite and snake conservation in India. It has four major components with specific goals as outlined in the objectives.

Problem Areas

   1. While millions of ecologically valuable snakes are indiscriminately killed in India, tens of thousands of rural people die from snakebite throughout the country each year.
   2. Current Indian antivenoms are raised against the venoms of four medically important species of snakes: Russell’s viper (Daboia russelii), spectacled cobra (Naja naja), common krait (Bungarus caeruleus) and the saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus). These polyvalent antivenoms are manufactured to a standardised formulation that should neutralize from 0.45-0.60 mg venom per milliliter (depending on the species). This minimum potency is very low compared to antivenoms elsewhere, offers poor neutralising potency against most species, and are of uncertain quality and safety. These products are currently produced using venoms obtained from wild-caught snakes collected in one part of India. Venoms are supplied without traceability or quality control and do not meet current WHO-recommended standards.

Project Image

Objectives of the project:

1. Snakebite and Snake Conservation - Education Outreach
Create a nationwide education and awareness programme to address ignorance about snakes and snakebite. Teach identification and avoidance of snakes. Promote snakebite first aid. Teach rural clinicians and other health workers about snakes and latest snakebite treatment protocol. Two short videos have already been produced to be dubbed in all major Indian languages.
Please check out:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7O5-CccDDo  Watch here -No password needed
https://vimeo.com/167847004  Watch here -Password: snakebite

2. Snakebite and Snake Conservation - Education Outreach
Collect venom samples from around India for basic testing to establish venom toxicity (LD50) and effectiveness of antivenom (ED50) with the goal to improve antivenom.

3. Snakebite and Snake Conservation
Carry out toxinological research (proteomics and venomics) to establish minimum effective dose of antivenom, cross-reactivity of antivenom among species of snakes, and geographic variation in venoms. The goal is to develop a pathway for the production of improved, high potency, antivenom. Indian antivenoms have low potency and are dispensed in 10 ml vials for convenience – there is no therapeutic correlation to this standard vial volume. There is significant scope to improve antivenom production, starting with venom quality and hyper immune plasma production.

4. Mapping
Conduct field studies on the distribution and abundance of the medically important snakes to guide antivenom manufacture and distribution to key snakebite areas in the country to avoid perennially reported shortages of this life-saving drug.

Contacts

  1. Romulus Whitaker, Project Manager-India, Global Snakebite Initiative Centre for Herpetology/Madras Crocodile Bank, ECR, Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu
  email: kingcobra@gmail.com
  Cell: +91 94449 26195

  2. Jose Louies, Project Head. Indian Snake Bite Initiative, Tropical Institute of Ecological Sciences, Kottayam, Kerala .
  email : jose@indiansnakes.org
  Cell:+91 9745003075