India leads the world in snakebite deaths, with a staggering annual mortality rate of more than 50,000 lives lost to snakebite, which has been categorized as a ‘Neglected Tropical Disease’ by the World Health Organization.
Here’s what’s odd:
We know that India accounts for more than half of the world’s snakebite deaths, right? But we don’t even have a high population of venomous snakes! In fact, out of the roughly 276 species of snakes found in India, less than 20% are venomous.
So what gives?
Two primary factors lead to the high number of snakebite deaths in India. Firstly, we do not take any safeguards or apply any personal safety habits like using a torch for movement in the dark. Secondly, ignorance and myth cloud the reality of snakes and snakebite so deeply, that the vacuum of the right knowledge itself is deadly.
Consequently, those who get bitten practice incorrect responses to snakebite that lead to complications and eventual death. The correct first-aid protocol is non-existent and snakebite patients do not get the right – or any – medical treatment for that matter.
It is important to know that snakes are not creatures of emotion or vengeance and will never seek a human out to attack. They are not malicious; they are gentle reptiles who are equally petrified of us. In fact, snakes bite only in self-defense, that is when touched, stepped upon, beaten or physically threatened in any way. So being mindful of your actions and movements in the outdoors is the best way to protect yourself from snakebite.
Since we know that snakebite patients are actually dying from administering a wrong response to snakebite, let us begin with the don’ts.
Don’ts of snakebite
- Do not panic: This will only accelerate the rate at which venom is circulated in your blood stream and reaches your heart.
- Do not waste time: Don’t bother to try catching or killing the snake. Act swiftly by calling for medical help.
- Do not consult the Internet at any cost: The biggest, baddest source of myths and wrong information is the Internet and Bolly/Kolly/Tolly/Holly/Sandal/Mollywood films. Forget everything you have watched online, family beliefs or heresy about snakebite unless the source was a certified scientific or medical professional.
- Do not tie anything tight near the site of the bite: The old protocol of tying a tourniquet is effective ONLY if done correctly. If the tourniquet is tied too tight or is made of hard materials such as wire, this can be counterproductive and will do more harm than good to the patient.
- Do not consume anything: The patient should not drink water, juice or alcoholic substances. The patient should not eat anything at all, not even herbs or herbal remedies. The patient should not self-medicate or ingest any painkillers or syrups that they believe might help their cause.
- Do not interfere with the bite area by cutting, sucking or washing it: This is extremely dangerous for the patient and will only worsen the case.
- Do not exert yourself physically.
Do’s of snakebite
- Stay calm: This can save your life, without exaggeration. Fear and panic worsen your situation. It has been proven than people often die of the panic even when a non-venomous snake has bitten them!
- Move away from the snake: Let the snake move away. On your part, get as far away from it as possible.
- Call for help: Call an ambulance without delay and inform them of the emergency so they are aware of the equipment to prepare, if need be.
- Do not approach, try to catch or touch the snake in any way: Today, you do not need to know the species of the snake to be able to receive the correct anti-venom (if need be) as there is a polyvalent antivenom available for the commonly found venomous snake species in India, known as the Big 4 species of venomous importance.
- Lie down and remove tight-fitting objects: While you wait for the ambulance to arrive, lie horizontal and remove tight-fitting objects (such as watches, rings, chains, anklets, bracelets, bangles and so on) from the area of the bite. We do this because a venomous snakebite has the tendency to swell, and if it does so around a tight object, it poses a risk to the patients’ limb or specific part of the body. At a later stage, this could require additional medical assistance and at times, amputation.
- Immobilize the bite area: Keep as still as possible so as to minimize the rate of blood circulation; this means avoid movement, walking, working, running and so on.
- Transfer the patient to a hospital without delay: In all cases of snakebite or suspected snakebite, go to a hospital – this is non-negotiable. When transporting the patient to the hospital, ensure s/he does not move too much and do not let them walk. Some tips for transporting the patient could be to have them sit on a chair and carry the chair; two people flank the patient, sling his/her arms over the shoulders of those who are carrying him/her and then lift; build a makeshift stretcher out of materials available and have the patient lie down during transit.
- Report time of bite and symptoms: These need to be explained to the doctor in a clear and organized manner. The snakebite patient has to be checked by a certified doctor who is the only medical professional qualified to clear a person from harm’s way.
Thumb rules to remember
- Snakebites are accidents that are caused from irresponsible conduct or lack of safety precautions. Accidents can be avoided by applying the correct safety precautions at all times.
- Antivenom is the only proven cure for venomous snakebite. Period.
- Snakebite is a medical condition, not a curse, act of God or revenge. A person who gets bit is a patient not a victim.
- When responding to a snakebite situation, ignorance and misinformation can actually kill you – act wisely and do it right. This means administering timely first aid at any cost.
- India has roughly four times more non-venomous snake species than venomous species. Stay calm, the odds are with you.