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One Million Snakebites

The smallest of India’s ‘big four’ venomous snakes, the saw-scaled viper, is little but lethal! When threatened, it coils its body and rubs its rough scales producing a ‘sawing’ sound as a warning before striking swiftly. Photo: Rom Whitaker.

If you are a young farmer in India, your chances of succumbing to snakebite are greater than anywhere else in the world. The country has made impressive strides in several fields, including putting satellites in orbit, but in the case of snakebite casualties, we appear to be mired in the Dark Ages.

According to earlier reports from the World Health Organisation (WHO), between 35,000 to 50,000 Indians die of snakebite every year, but in 2008, the government reported a dramatically low 1,400 snakebite mortalities. In 2015, the number plummeted even further to less than 1,100.

A path-breaking project code-named ‘The Million Death Study’ (see box) provides the first realistic handle on the impact of venomous snakes. By a process of extensive interviews called ‘verbal autopsies’, the study found that snakes bite as many as a million Indians every year while almost 50,000 people die, a third of globally-estimated snakebite deaths. In other words, for every two people who succumb to AIDS, there is one snakebite victim!


Indians seem quixotically prone to high snakebite-risk behaviour such as walking barefoot without a torchlight at night, sleeping on the floor, and creating ideal cover for rodents and snakes in their midst. Once bitten, they further reduce their chances of survival by going to a witch doctor first, rather than seeking the only cure, antivenom, from a hospital. There is very little understanding that a snake injects its virulent muscle-eating, nerve-damaging, blood-destroying venom deep into body tissue that no amount of superficially-applied ‘black stones’, herbal poultices, or eating bitter roots can hope to counter. For decades, Indian herpetologist Rom Whitaker has evangelised that only an injection can counter the snake’s injection, but clearly vast areas of the country remain to be educated. Rom is now the Project Manager (India) of the Global Snakebite Initiative.

Across south Asia, picture-perfect rice fields are highly-productive food bowls of nations. Whitaker, however, sees them as ideal...

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