Irula snake-catchers providing venom for producing antivenom – Tamil Nadu

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India has one of the highest rates of death from snakebite in the world. There are four species of snakes (of the nearly 300 different species in India) primarily responsible for deaths. The “Big Four” are the cobra (we have four species), krait (we have eight species), saw-scaled viper (two subspecies) and Russell’s viper. All of these species are widely distributed throughout most of the country although areas like the far Northeast, the Himalayan region and the Andaman and Nicobar have very different snake fauna

The first national survey of the causes of death (the Million Death Study, undertaken in 2001-03 by the Registrar General of India and the Centre for Global Health Research) gave an estimate of 46,000 annual deaths by snakebite in the country.  […]

The venom for producing antivenom is mostly sourced from the Irula Snake-catchers Industrial Cooperative Society located on the premises of the Madras Crocodile Bank on Chennai’s East Coast Road. And herein lies one of the problems. Clinicians in other parts of the country are reporting that the antivenom they are using is ineffectual in counteracting the effects of a venomous bite. Toxinologists, both here and abroad, have found that venom of the same species of snake may differ considerably from region to region which means that the antivenom produced from venom collected by the Irulas in a single district in Tamil Nadu may not be effective in neutralising the venom from the same species of snake from Rajasthan or West Bengal for example.

Professor David Warrell, a world authority on snakebite and co-author of the aspect of the Million Death Study titled “Snakebite Mortality in India”, in a recent editorial in the National Medical Journal of India (Vol.24:6, 2011) states:

“Snakebite accounts for three per cent of all deaths in children of the age of 5-14 years. Ninety-seven per cent of the victims of snake bite die in rural areas, 77 per cent of them outside health facilities, presumably because they chose traditional therapy from tantriks, vaidyas and ojhas. Uttar Pradesh had the highest number of deaths (8700/year) and Andhra Pradesh the highest incidence of mortality due to snake bite (6.2/100000 population/year). These figures should prompt the Ministry of Health to reassess its priorities in the context of snake bite and deploy resources where they are most needed.” […]

Since snakebite is a rural problem, primarily affecting India’s farmers, rural labourers and their families, it would make sense for antivenom and associated treatment to be available at Primary Health Centres and other rural medical facilities. […]

There are several possible actions that need to be taken to tackle this huge health issue. […]

Source: “Health : In search of a cure” by Romulus Whitaker, The Hindu, 30 June 2012
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“We are so much more than that. We follow a tradition rich in music, dance and love.” – Author Swarnalatha who runs an NGO that works for the upliftment for people of her Irula community >>