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Thursday, Nov 21, 2019

Research to help develop antivenom for snakebites

In India, 2.8 million snakebites are reported every year, according to an analysis published in medical journal BMJ. Over 50,000 of them die. Yet, the antivenom available is virtually ineffective in treating venomous snakebites in many parts of the country.

india Updated: Oct 21, 2019 03:19 IST
Jayashree Nandi
Jayashree Nandi
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Romulus Whitaker during a workshop.
Romulus Whitaker during a workshop.(Rolex Awards/Cedric Bregnard)

A team of herpetologists and scientists is on the verge of publishing a research work that could give the medical fraternity clues to develop an antivenom effective in treating venomous snakebites all over the country.

In India, 2.8 million snakebites are reported every year, according to an analysis published in medical journal BMJ. Over 50,000 of them die. Yet, the antivenom available is virtually ineffective in treating venomous snakebites in many parts of the country. This is because snake venom attributes even from the same species differ widely depending on geography. Romulus Whitaker, a veteran herpetologist and winner of the Rolex Award for Enterprise in 1984 and 2008, has been travelling around the country’s forests to collect venom from different species of snakes and contribute to the large research.

Rolex Awards for Enterprise was launched in 1976 to support pioneering men and women who work towards improving human well-being and protecting natural heritage. The awards are the highlight of Rolex’s Perpetual Planet campaign which aims at finding solutions to global environmental problems.

Indian conservation scientist Krithi Karanth won the Rolex award in 2019 for her work on tackling man-animal conflict in Karnataka and fostering empathy for wildlife among children living near protected areas. Rolex has recognised the work of five other Indians in the past. They include innovator Sonam Wangchuk and Chennai-based lake conservationist Arun Krishnamurthy. Their efforts have led to some significant conservation projects. One of them is Whitaker’s snake bite mitigation work. Most antivenom producers in India source venom from the Irula Snake Catchers’ Industrial Cooperative Society established by Whitaker’s Madras Crocodile Bank in 1978 in the Tamil Nadu capital.

The venom is collected only from Tiruvallur and Kanchipuram districts in Tamil Nadu and used to manufacture antivenom used all over the country.

“Venom composition even in the same species varies by geography. For instance, the venom of Russell’s viper in Kanchipuram will differ from [that in] a district in West Bengal. The venom from a baby snake also often varies from that of an adult snake,” says Whitaker, who is collaborating with Kartik Sungar of the Bengaluru-based Evolutionary Venomics Lab at the Indian Institute of Science on the research project. The findings will be published in the next couple of weeks and is expected to be a breakthrough for treatment of snakebites in India.

“We have found the existing antivenom to be largely ineffective in parts of Arunachal Pradesh and West Bengal,” said Sungar. Whitaker stresses that snakes are of huge conservation and ecological value, but villagers very often have to pay with their lives for sharing habitat with snakes. Developing antivenom is only a part of the larger effort to mitigate the problem.

Whitaker, who is also the programme manager of the Global Snakebite Initiative, and his team have come up with simple solutions to prevent snake bites in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra — the most snakebite prone states. They have developed a phone app for mapping distribution of venomous snakes and reached out to more than 700,000 people through workshops, hand-outs and short films in regional languages in the past three years.

The films give people scientific solutions on what to do in case of a snakebite. For example, instead of tying a tourniquet around the wound or cutting the wound out with a blade, it’s best to immediately rush the person to a hospital where s/he can be treated with antivenom.

Another film advises how to rescue a snake professionally with safe handling and appropriate gear. The film highlights that it is important for rescuers to tell villagers and bystanders that snakes are valuable. Snakes help control rats and if you remove non-venomous snakes such as rat snakes, the niche may be filled by a venomous one such as a cobra. It also talks about how to identify the big four dangerously venomous snakes — Russell’s viper, cobra, krait and saw-scaled viper. There are over 300 species of snakes in India, of which 60 are venomous but not all are dangerous. In rural Tamil Nadu, Whitaker is also studying acceptability of preventive gear such rechargeable torchlights, gumboots and mosquito nets. “Snakebites occur frequently at night when people are walking without torchlight and step on a snake. Most snake bites occur on the lower extremities. Rural people sleeping on the ground are vulnerable to snakebites. Through our experience we have observed that if these conditions are addressed, a majority of snakebite incidents can be avoided,” he says.The Environmentalist Foundation of India of Arun Krishnamurthy, another Rolex awardee, is reviving ponds and lakes in the northwest and southwest catchments of Chennai. Mudichur, a suburb where they had restored one lake and four ponds, did not face an acute water shortage unlike other parts of the city this summer.

“It’s been an extremely busy year, as the water crisis here was at a peak. The harsh summer also meant a good opportunity to increase public awareness on the need for water conservation. I won the Rolex award when I was 25. It gave me the confidence and support system to pursue conservation efforts. The award also supported me with a follow-up course from UNESCO Institute for Water Education, which helped me design the water projects,” says Krishnamurthy.

Ladakh-based Sonam Wangchuk, who won the award in 2016, is working on energy innovations. “At Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh [his NGO], we have been building solar-heated mud buildings that stay warm even in Ladakhi winters when temperatures go down to -25 degrees Celsius. Of late, my team has been scientifically monitoring these buildings to share the data with the world. These will be published soon,” he said.