Connect to share and comment

Health: Snake bites are a forgotten global threat

The global death toll from snake bites — around 100,000 — could be far less if antivenom were more accessible.

A believer holds a snake during the St. Domenico's procession in Cocullo, central Italy, May 1, 2008. (Max Rossi/Reuters)

NEW YORK — In most Indian villages there is an "ojha," or a magician who doubles as a medicine man. The ojha can cure snake bites with mantras and by rubbing leaves and homemade pastes on the wound.

In a village called Sameda, in Uttar Pradesh's Azamgarh district, people put a lot of faith in these age-old remedies. The only problem is, sometimes they don’t work.

“The city hospital is three hours away and people cannot make it before the poison spreads,” said Jagram Chauhan, a resident of the village where snake bites are a common occurrence.

The global death toll from snake bites is estimated to be at least 100,000, though there are approximately three times as many amputations performed on people who have been bitten by snakes, according to the World Heath Organization (WHO).

Snakebites are described in several studies as a neglected health threat that claims thousands of lives every year, especially in rural parts of South Asia, South America and Sub-Saharan Africa. More than 5 million people are bitten by snakes annually, and 2.5 million get venom in their system.

In India alone, around 11,000 people die and 84,000 are poisoned by snakes every year. These deaths could be prevented if antivenom is used quickly.

Twenty years ago, Felipa Angeles, an inhabitant of Caraz in the highlands of Peru, said that people would rush on horseback to small clinics in the countryside that had antivenom in stock.

“Now some have cars but the poison spreads so fast that by the time they get to hospital, their arm or leg needs to be amputated,” she said.

Angeles grew up scared of rattle snakes that killed not only animals in her village, but also people.

“My family had to sacrifice our horse because it was crying from so much pain [after it was bitten by a snake],” she said. “This is very bad because people depend on animals for their livelihood.”

In Africa alone there are an estimated 1 million snake bites annually with about half those bitten needing treatment. WHO says the actual number of bites is likely to be much higher because available figures are based on hospital statistics, while most victims don’t make it to the hospital.

“The scale of human suffering remains unknown,” said Ann Padilla, a WHO scientist. “This problem continues to be neglected by many countries.”

There is no doctor to cure snake bites in the Bhluahi village of Bihar, India. The first thing villagers do is to tightly tie a rope around the area that is bitten to stop the poison from flowing and then make a small incision to drain the venom.

“Some people keep medicines but they are usually hard to find and expensive to buy,” said Santosh Kumar, a villager.

There are 3,000 snake species in the world out of which 600 are deadly and 200 are needed for medical purposes. They are found in every continent except Antarctica. Snakes usually attack in self-defense when they feel threatened, startled or provoked.