Leicester expert leads fight to cut India’s annual toll of 50,000 snakebite deaths

A University of Leicester academic is using her expertise to help India cut the number of fatalities from snake-bites.

India is the global capital of snakebite deaths, with more than 50,000 people dying from bites each year.

In 2015, the government of India committed to halving the number of deaths by 2030 when it ratified both the World Health Organisation’s Snakebite Envenoming Strategy for Prevention and Control through the National Action Plan and the United Nations’ Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

With seven years remaining, Dr Nibedita Ray-Bennett, Associate Professor in Risk Management and Founder of the Avoidable Deaths Network (ADN) at the University of Leicester, is bringing her expertise to help progress towards that 2030 deadline.

With the majority of snakebite deaths occurring in rural India, Dr Ray-Bennett and fellow experts from the ADN have set up a pilot study in the village of Burujhari in Odisha. Burujhari was chosen as it has the highest number of snakebites in Odisha due to its proximity to coastal jungles, warm and humid climate and high population density. Agricultural workers there are at risk from bites from the Indian cobra, monocled cobra, common krait, Russell’s viper and Indian rock python. Being 85kms from the nearest medical facility, a lack of anti-venom and having limited knowledge about snakes, their behaviour and appropriate preventative measures, villagers risk their lives on a daily basis. Delays in access to timely anti-venom and an over-reliance on traditional healers are two major causes of bite deaths in the village.

The pilot study saw experts from the ADN travel to Burujhari to establish a hub for the local community to find lifesaving solutions through research and collaborations. ADN experts will explore all the possibilities to save lives including an early warning system for snakes much like the weather forecast in the monsoon season using the latest GPS/remote sensing tools, positioning motorbikes and ambulances to transfer snakebite victims to the nearest hospital, and creating an infrastructure for risk governance so that these interventions can be delivered effectively to reduce the number of avoidable snakebite deaths.

Dr Ray-Bennett said: “While we applaud the World Health Organisation’s ambitions to halve annual snakebite deaths, I think the target is somewhat ambitious. The sheer scale of the problem, and the time and resources needed to roll out an effective solution means there aren’t any overnight fixes. Thanks to the work of ADN, we now have the knowledge and potential solutions to move in the right direction to reduce deaths that are avoidable, but it will take time to roll out our interventions to all affected rural areas.”

Dr Ray-Bennett added: “Snakebite deaths are a rural phenomenon.  I was born and raised ina village in North Bengal, India. My heart breaks when I read or hear about snakebite deaths. We have the know-how and technology to save lives. Therefore, we should do all we can to stop deaths and disabilities from snake bites for the greater good of society.”

The University of Leicester, which is 26th out of all UK universities in the 2024 Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings, enjoys strong links with India. Last month (October 2023) it signed a Memorandum of Understanding with healthcare service provider, The Apollo Hospitals Group. The Memorandum will strengthen existing links with India and sets out a mutual desire to promote international cooperation and explore collaborative education and research programmes, particularly in the fields of healthcare management, healthcare and data science.

The University has limited availability for Master’s programmes with a January 2024 start, which can be undertaken by international students. To find out more visit the January 2024 postgraduate course page of the website.