Snakebite Awareness Camp September 2021

Essential education arms the local community with informed choices to deal with what the World Health Organisation categorises as a "neglected public health issue"

On Sunday 12th September, a team of three from an NGO named "Bharat Prochesta in Bharat" arrived at the Haven Centre to carry out a full day awareness programme for the local villagers.

The NGO is based in Bhattar in the state of Burdwan, West Bengal and is approximately 104km north from our centre in Atla. Loosely translated, its name means "Endeavours for the good of India". The team of three, Dhiman Bhattacharya, Anupam Banerjee and Prosenjit Banerjee, deserves our admiration for their industrious efforts in forming this NGO which deals with a multitude of environmental and social projects all designed to promote education and understanding within rural communities.

The wide-ranging activities they offer include nature studies, wild life conservation, tree planting, water conservation, and other skills development. In addition and, in order to provide a sense of community,they also organise cultural activities such as drama and dance. Most recently, and in line with their commitment to helping with immediate needs, their base of operations has been converted to an oxygen "parlour" for covid patients.

The team's aim on the day was to bring about awareness of snakebite and its first aid management in rural areas. With their considerable experience, they were confident they would be able to provide the necessary information, but their biggest hurdle would be in trying to get the villagers to become aware and adopt the correct first aid measures. They would have to break through years of culture and belief in bizarre remedies based on witchcraft and traditional healers. Popular traditional treatments include chanting, incisions, attempts to suck venom from the bite site, and the application of herbal medicine or snake stones, which is an animal bone or stone used in folk medicine.

In simple terms, the team hoped to teach the villagers what to do and, more importantly, what not to do in the event of a snakebite. Snakes administer bites, both as a method of hunting, and as a means of protection. Risk factors for bites include working outside with one's hands such as in farming, forestry, and construction. Snake bite is a common medical emergency and an occupational hazard, more so in tropical India, where farming is a major source of employment.

Every year, 50,000 Indians die in 2,50,000 incidents of snake bites, despite the fact that India is not home for the largest number of venomous snakes in the world, nor is there a shortage of anti-snake venom in the country. In 2017, WHO categorised snakebite envenomation as a Neglected Tropical Disease with the purpose to encourage snakebite management in "developing countries". Studies have shown community education can reduce mortality and causes of "unacceptable incidences". Most importantly, knowledge of the varied clinical manifestations of snake-bite is crucial for effective management. The team from Bhattar used colourful slide shows and flip charts with easy to follow diagrams to inform the villagers on how to recognise and identify different types of snakes and snakebites.

They were then able to show that some poisonous snakebites were fully curable if the patient were given appropriate medical treatment and correct first aid without wasting time on snake charmers and witch-doctors. By keeping their presentations clear and concise, and using simple easy to undertand language, the team were able to hold the villagers' attention throughout the day. Snake densities are sometimes very high, particularly in grain agriculture which attracts the largest rodent and amphibian populations that are eaten by snakes. Atla Village is predominantly made up of field labourers so the team knew they had to target this area with education about simple methods to reduce the risk of snakebites. With this in mind, they carried all of their equipment to the villagers and, using string tied to tree branches, they suspended a white backdrop and set up their presentation in the heart of the village.

The one essential message the team wanted to get across to the villagers was that prevention could save them from this acute, life-threatening medical emergency. In plain language, the villagers were taught that at the household level, measures include eradication of rats; avoiding having rubble, firewood, and cattle sheds close to their homes; wearing of high-sided footwear; use of a torch and stick while walking during darkness on farms and in high-grown grass; sleeping on a bamboo cot with the edges of a mosquito net properly tucked under the bed; and total prohibition of open toileting. Additionally, strict police action should be taken against mantriks and ojhas (village healers).

In line with their association's aims, Dhiman, Anupam and Prosenjit also planted two trees within the small garden at the Haven Centre. The Mimusops elengi (image above), commonly known as Spanish Cherry, is a medium sized evergreen tree which helps birds to feed and encourages nesting. And, the Manilkara zapota, commonly known as sapodilla, is a long-lived, evergreen tree native to southern Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean; it is grown in large quantities in India. The fruits have an exceptionally sweet, malty flavour and are full of nutrients. Biological studies have shown acetone extracts of the seeds exhibited in vitro antibacterial effects against strains of Vibrio cholerae.

This entire day had been an eye opener for all who attended; the valuable education and practical advice will surely guide the local community to minimise risk from snakebites and help save lives. We very much hope the team from Bhattar will visit again with a view to making this awareness camp a regular feature; education always needs reinforcing. Haven would like to extend heartfelt thanks to the committed group from "Bharat Prochesta in Bharat" for their time and dedication to promoting education within rural communities in West Bengal, India.

As always, our biggest thanks go to the MBCF staff and volunteers for providing the vital support that allows Haven to continue its essential work to provide the local people with life improving opportunities and choice.




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