Lucknow. The emergency ward of Lohia Hospital in Lucknow sees many cases like this one. The man is in his thirties. He comes from a nearby village. He is lying on the bed in the ICU. He is on ventilator support as he is unable to breathe on his own. He was brought to the hospital with a snake bite. If he is lucky, he will survive. Else he will becomes one more statistic. One among the 50,000 that die because of snake bite.
Surprising, isn't it? That as many as 50,000 lives are lost to snake bite every year and the issue makes no headlines? World Health Organisation records that the world over 1,00,000 people die of snake bites. Half of these are from India. And it wouldn't be impossible for the figures to be more because several snake bite deaths here are not recorded. People in the villages preferring to seek help from witch-doctors rather than rushing to hospital.
Snake venom courses through the human system very fast. Trial and error in the treatment is not an option as there is not enough time to make corrections. Ninety-seven percent of these deaths take place in our villages. According to a report in the Public Library of Science journal by India's Snake Man Romulus Whitaker, the number of snake deaths is between 45,900 and 50,900. Men account for 59 percent and women account for 41 percent of this number. Most of the snake bite incidents happen between June and September. Uttar Pradesh reported 8,700, Andhra Pradesh 5,200 and Bihar 4,500 snake bite deaths.
While the number of snake deaths is alarming, an equal area of concern is those who survive. Often snake bite survivors have to live with the after-effects of the paralyzing snake venom. About a lakh people become paralysed because of snake bite. Often doctors have no option but to amputate the area where the snake bite has taken place to prevent the venom from spreading. Commonly, it is farmers who become victims of snakes.
According to snake experts, there are about 300 varieties of snakes in India. Of these, only 15 are venomous. But only four of these 15 varieties are the cause of 98 percent of deaths. This Deadly Four consists of cobra, Russel viper, krait and saw-scaled viper.
Experts can tell whether the snake was poisonous or not merely by looking at the shape of the bite. The colour and shape of the snake are not indicators of whether it is poisonous or not because often even non-venomous snakes take on the appearance of poisonous snakes to evade enemies. Size is also not an indicator because even small snakes can be extremely deadly.
So the best protection of snakes is in safety. Romulus Whitaker says that generally, snakes themselves stay away from humans. They become aggressive only if they fear danger to themselves from humans. By increasing our own awareness about snakes, their habitat and habits, we can protect ourselves. He suggests the following steps for protection from the Deadly Four.
Cobra: Most people identify the cobra by its hood. While we may be terrified of the image of a cobra with its hood menacing us, the reality is that it is quite scared of humans and will try to evade even a small movement. If it is cornered, it will first try to warn the intruder by spreading its hood and hissing. If this does not work, it will still not attack but feint an attack. Whitaker noticed in a slow-motion video that in its first feint, the mouth of the cobra remains closed. If the cobra perceives that the danger is still there, it is only then that it finally attacks.
How to escape: Cobra's feed of rats. Rats come into fields with standing crops in search of food. And the cobra follows the rats into the fields. From the fields into the homes, the rats chase food and the cobra follows. So make your homes mice proof. And in the fields, be careful around rat-holes. Do not venture out in the dark without a torch.
Russel Viper: This snake has big fangs and its venom is fast-spreading. Because of its appearance, people often mistake it for a sand boa or ajgar. It can be identified by the scales which look like metal chain links. It is brown in colour. It feeds on small rats, frogs, lizards, other snakes and insects. It generally remains hidden in dead leaves or grass as it lies in wait for its prey. If someone accidentally comes near or steps on it, it attacks.
How to escape: Since it likes to remain hidden among leaves and grass, steer clear of any piles of dead leave. It is nocturnal, more active at night, so do not venture outdoors at night without a torch.
Krait: The krait does not appear dangerous, but appearances can be deceptive. There are many, less poisonous snakes that look like a krait. But beware, the venom of the krait is deadly. It generally comes out at night and often people who sleep on the ground become its victims. The krait comes out in search of food at night and if it comes across a human sleeping on the floor, and accidentally, the human touches it, makes a seemingly provocative movement, it will bite in self defense. The most dangerous part of a krait bite is that it is generally quite painless. So a sleeping person may not even realize that it has been bitten and may die in his sleep.
How to escape: The best precaution is to not sleep on the floor. If you do have to sleep on the floor, use a mosquito net and ensure that it is tucked in securely on all sides.
Saw Scaled Viper: It is quite small in size but moves swiftly. It remains in the open, on dry land. It remains coiled and this makes it seem even smaller. It becomes difficult to spot in grass or among leaves. Some people get fooled by its size in assuming that it is not dangerous.
How to escape: Take a close look around to try and spot the snake. Check your shoes before wearing them, it may be hiding inside.
To sum it up, to evade this Deadly Four, stay away from rat holes, steer clear of dry leaves, use a torch at night and check piles of grass or leaves before putting your hand in.
But what to do if the snake does bite? If the snake bite victim is brought to a hospital in time, he can be saved. Lives are lost in delay, picking witch doctors over hospitals and shortage of anti-venom. Dr SC Maurya of Lohia Hospital, Lucknow, told Gaon Connection, "The first thing to do is calm down the person who has been bitten. Panic only makes the venom spread faster in the blood stream. The victim should not walk. Take him to the nearest hospital. Contrary to common belief, do not use a tourniquet or make a cut at the spot of the bite. This will worsen the situation. Precautions like not sleeping on the ground, not defecating in the open and using a torch at night are a must."
Also read: Differentiating between 'good and bad touch'