NEW DELHI—An onslaught of fatal snakebite attacks is sweeping India and killing tens of thousands each year—and so far, the government’s response has been to ignore, trivialize, and cover up the crisis altogether.
A 2020 study, which was based on verbal autopsies, suggests that on average, close to 58,000 Indian citizens die each year due to snakebites. In contrast, the country’s government reports ridiculously low numbers: In 2018, the Health and Family Welfare minister Ashwini Kumar Choubey declared that only 689 snake-related deaths had occurred in India that year—a fraction of the figure referenced in the study, and one that any expert would quickly balk at.
Shashikant Dubey, 28, was working in his rice fields last month in Niwari, a small rural district in central India’s Madhya Pradesh state, when he suddenly felt a burning sensation in his hand. “The pain was such that I felt like someone had skinned my hand,” Dubey told The Daily Beast.
At first, he thought a scorpion had stung him, but as his hand started turning black he realized that he had been bitten by a venomous snake. Growing up, Dubey had often seen people in his village dying after getting bitten by snakes. Instead of a hospital, villagers would often be taken to a local quack who would bathe 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 vegetable seller in the village died after the quack refused to let her family take her to the hospital, a sense of repulsion against the tradition began to grow in Dubey’s community.
“That death was subconsciously stuck in my mind. So I immediately planned to go to the hospital rather than to the village quack, " Dubey said. But the nearest hospital with access to the anti-venom is more than 10 km away from his village, and Dubey was advised by other villagers to deep cut his hand and let the 'dirty' blood out until he managed to rush to a doctor.
By the time he was taken to the hospital, his blood oxygen saturation levels had dropped significantly and his condition had worsened. Over the next few days, he 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, wasn't.
“Akhilesh was sleeping in his home when a snake bit him. It was nighttime and we couldn't immediately arrange transport to carry him to the hospital. And ultimately when we did, it was too late and he died on the way [to the hospital],” Qamar, a resident of Bettiah area near the Indo-Nepal border, told The Daily Beast.
Qamar says such incidents are all too common in his village.
“Last year, a lady who was living near my house went to the toilet during the night and a snake bit her. It was during monsoon and it was dark so when the snake bit her she thought it was some insect,” he said. “Due to the darkness, she couldn’t realize that it was a snake and then she slept. During the night the venom spread throughout her body and she eventually died,” Qamar explained.
There are many reasons for India’s snakebite crisis, including a lack of first aid facilities, dependence on ‘spiritual healers’ or quacks, 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 principal deities of Hinduism, as being ‘the lord of the snakes.’ During a festival last month, a 25-year-old man in India’s eastern state of Bihar died while handling snakes at a religious festival.
“I get eight to 10 rescue calls each day. Some days it goes up to 15 or 20 calls a day," Surya Keerthi, a wildlife conservationist and public educator who has rescued more than 6,000 snakes in the last three years, told The Daily Beast. “Most of the time what happens is that when farmers are harvesting or planting the crops, that’s when they accidentally step on snakes who then bite them.”
According to experts, the scarcity of basic health centers near these villages is one of the reasons behind the many casualties, as patients can’t get medical attention fast enough.
“People invariably waste a lot of time trying to get to medical facilities, which leads to many deaths,” says Avinash Visvanathan, general secretary of Friends of Snake Society, an Indian nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection of snakes. “And there are many quacks and faith healers who further waste time and victims usually end up going to these faith healers and quacks before they reach out to medical facilities. This considerable delay between the snakebite and the time to take 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-venomous, four very dangerous ones—the Indian cobra, the Common Krait, the Russell’s Viper and the Saw-scaled Viper—kill a large number of Indians each year.
Visvanathan believes the number of snake-related cases are highly under-reported because the government is not making the effort to properly document the cases or make the data available to researchers and experts working on snakebite mitigation.
Addressing this crisis won’t be an easy task. “First and foremost it needs to be made a notifiable disease, then only we can get a real picture,” says Visvanathan. Making it a a notifiable disease means that doctors, whether in government or private hospitals, have to report all cases of snakebite deaths to the administration. Experts say that not making it a notifiable disease makes it easier for the government to hide numbers.
Priyanka Kadam, president and founder of the Snakebite Healing and Education Society in Mumbai, believes the narrow perspective of India’s health ministry is that only communicable diseases should be made notifiable. “So we have data about tuberculosis, cholera and other diseases. We now even have made rabies a notifiable disease but not snakebites,” says Kadam.
Lack of resources and stunted distribution of anti-venom in rural hospitals is another problem. “Because of the lack of equipment and trained staff in government-run primary health centers, the situation is aggravated,” says Visvanatha.
Doctors in the country also say that there is a lack of awareness among the masses about how to seek immediate help, which drastically increases causality numbers. “An overwhelming majority of the cases are asymptomatic, bitten by non-venomous snakes. Yet we have many casualties and morbidities because of lack of awareness” says Dr. Ramachandra Kumar, a government doctor from Nalanda Medical College and Hospital in the eastern Indian state of Bihar.
“What we see is that the patients bitten by snakes suffer other injuries like cuts and bruises which aggravate the problem. In order to ooze out the blood, people make cuts around the snakebite area using whatever available accessories like knives and stilettos. They even apply pressure by tying cloth near the bite to stop blood reaching to other parts of the body," says Kumar, explaining that these DIY treatment methods often lead to further complications.
According to Visvanathan, without support from the government, there’s no end to India’s snakebite crisis in sight.
“The major problem with the snakebite is we actually lack data, we don’t have a baseline data and we don’t have the mechanism to capture the gravity of the problem,” he said. “The government, for some strange reason, is sitting on it.”