Informing and educating about snake venom
Each year, bites from venomous snakes lead to over 500,000 permanent disabilities and kill around 150,000 people, mostly those living in rural communities.
A survey of around 30,000 rural households in Tamil Nadu carried out by Reading scientist Dr Sakthi Vaiyapuri revealed that there are at least ten times more snakebites in India than are officially recorded. This is because many people who are bitten never make it to hospital, either dying on their way there or seeking treatment from traditional healers instead. These findings inspired him and his team to create a public engagement campaign, ‘Venomous snakebites: Rapid action saves lives’ – to improve awareness of snakes and snakebites across the state of Tamil Nadu, India.
The team produced posters, information leaflets and videos about the top four species of venomous snakes in India and the dangers of their bites. The aim was to help people identify them, along with what to do – or not to do – if bitten. A 60-day, 20,000km road trip took in over 100 schools and colleges and more than 100 villages and towns. The campaign reached 200,000 people directly, and a Facebook campaign reached a further 3 million in Tamil Nadu. It also caught the attention of a major TV channel in Tamil Nadu, which produced a 20-minute documentary to highlight the issue. Several other TV channels, newspapers and magazines published articles about snakebites.
The main aims of the project were to raise awareness about snakes and snakebites and break down
common misconceptions – for example that a tourniquet is the best way to treat snakebite, or that snakebites can be treated by traditional healers.
Collaboration was at the heart of the project, which built upon a long-term relationship between a clinician at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Kings Lynn, a clinical snakebite specialist from the TCR Multispeciality Hospital in Tamil Nadu and three local NGOs. The hospital provided clinical expertise on the symptoms of bites, the NGOs advised on prevention strategies to avoid snakes coming into populated areas, and Dr Vaiyapuri provided scientific expertise on the effects of snake venom on the body. Collectively they designed the information leaflets, posters and video documentaries for the campaign.
TCR Multispecialty Hospital, the main snakebite referral hospital serving the villages targeted by the public awareness campaign, is gathering data on snakebite victims who attend hospital as a result of hearing about the campaign. So far, the team has found that 60% of the 295 snakebite victims they saw in 2019 were aware of the campaign and had followed its key messages including to go to hospital promptly following the bite. The team are also measuring changes in how well people can identify snakes, awareness of how to prevent snakes coming into living areas, numbers of hospital visits and knowledge of how to treat bites.
Dr Vaiyapuri continues to engage with policymakers and NGOs with the aim of rolling out the campaign nationally, potentially saving thousands of lives and ensuring that survivors remain economically active. Moreover, the team is trying to influence government policy to include essential snakebite information in school text books and to provide free treatment for bites across the country.
The team has now established partnerships with various academic and research institutions and hospitals in India, with the World Health Organization, and with the NGO Health Action International. This will help further their goal of increasing awareness about snakebites in rural India.