14/05/2016 8:25 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST

Snakebites: The Poor Man's Disease That Has Been Ignored For Far Too Long

Indian Cobra or Spectacled Cobra (Naja naja), Elapidae. India.
DEA / DANI-JESKE via Getty Images
Indian Cobra or Spectacled Cobra (Naja naja), Elapidae. India.

Films have certainly instilled a fear of animals in our hearts--sharks, crocodiles and even CGI dinosaurs can seem like the biggest threat to mankind. However, the true culprits, which are the cause of about 45,000 deaths every year in India, are hiding behind trees and slithering unnoticed across farm lands. We're talking about snakes, and not just Kaa, the enormous snake from The Jungle Book! Even a small, harmless-looking snake can be quite dangerous.

India is home to the 'Big Four' species of snakes--Russel's Viper, the Indian Krait, Spectacled Cobra and Saw-Scaled Viper--all four of which are responsible for the most snakebite-related deaths. Snakes don't start with the intention of hunting humans, they simply come to farms and then slither into houses as they search for rodents to eat. So, their unfortunate victims are mostly farm labourers in the rural areas of India - a good reason why the issue hasn't gotten much attention in mainstream media. Few doctors know how to treat them or how to administer anti-venom. Mis-administering it may lead to anaphylactic shock, life-threatening allergic reactions, and even death! While most farmers deforest the land around their homes and farms in a bid to stay safe, we also need a healthy population of snakes to control and limit the growth of rodents and pests.

Sounds like a catch-22 situation, doesn't it?

The only way to combat the epidemic of snakebites in India is to make our anti-venom more potent. Our concoctions are manufactured by extracting blood plasma from animals who have been injected with diluted snake venom because it contains the antibodies that can fight it. However, this is the same method that has been practiced since the 19th century and is in dire need of an update. After all, each species of snakes has unique venom that contains a specific mixture of toxins, and each one requires a particular set of antibodies in order to be neutralised.

In India, all venom is currently manufactured using venom that is predominantly obtained from a single licensed producer. But the degree of how venomous a snake is depends on which geographical area it resides in, and using the same anti-venom for all snakes is not advisable.

Listen to Padmaparna Ghosh and Samanth Subramanian talk about India's 'poor man's disease' and how it has been ignored for decades.

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