India is facing a deadly snakebite crisis that claims the lives of thousands of its citizens every year, with little attention paid to treating what is often referred to as the “poor man’s disease.” Farmers, in particular, are at high risk of being bitten by venomous snakes. According to a 2020 study, an average of nearly 58,000 Indian citizens die each year due to snakebites. However, the actual numbers are likely higher due to unreported cases.
Himar Jatt, a 37-year-old camel herder from Bachau in Gujarat state, has been bitten by venomous snakes three times in two years. His most recent encounter left him in excruciating pain and paralyzed for nearly two months. His neighbor, Baruah Bhil, a farmer, was also bitten by a snake last year and died the following day after seeking treatment from a quack doctor.
Doctors and public health experts attribute the snakebite crisis in India to several factors, including a cultural reverence for snakes, lack of access to immediate first aid facilities, reliance on “spiritual healers,” and a large share of the rural population living close to agricultural fields. There are over 300 snake species in India, of which 62 are identified as venomous and semi-venomous. The most dangerous ones include the common krait, the Russell’s viper, and the Indian cobra, which kill many people each year.
Dayal Majumdar, one of the country’s leading experts on snakebite treatment, has been visiting small villages in the Radha Nagar area of West Bengal for the last fifteen years, where numerous people have died from snakebites. During his visits, he witnessed an acute shortage of antivenom and a scarcity of healthcare facilities, which he believes is the main factor in the high number of casualties. Majumdar campaigns in villages across West Bengal state, urging people to seek immediate treatment in the nearest medical center if bitten, and discourages people from traditional treatment by faith healers or local priests.
Avinash Visvanathan, general secretary of the Friends of Snake Society, a non-profit organization working for the conservation of snakes in India, runs awareness programs across the country to educate people on how to deal with snakebites. Visvanathan believes snakebites are a serious health issue that has been neglected in India and advocates making it a notifiable disease.
The World Health Organization (WHO) designated poisoning by snakebite a neglected tropical disease in 2017. In 2022, the agency launched a global initiative to halve the number of snakebite deaths and disabilities by 2030. However, in India, it is still not categorized as a notifiable disease, which plays down its severity and keeps it out of official government reports.
Jatt and fellow villagers are now fighting to get a local medical center equipped with antivenom medicines. For them, this would mean access to immediate, professional treatment, and the end of the snakebite scourge on their village.