One of the most neglected issues in the health sector in India relates to the serious (avoidable, but actually increasing) problems of snake-bite victims. As most of these victims are poor people in villages, their problems have been neglected to a shocking extent.
Such is the neglect that even reliable statistics on victims of snake-bites are not available, and data collected during the colonial era is often quoted despite being grossly outdated. Several experts agree that deaths caused due to snake-bites are not less than 50,000 at present.
In fact, studies in concentrated areas, have shown the figure to be much higher. For example a study in Burdwan district of West Bengal revealed that 29,489 people were bitten by snakes in a single year, resulting in 1,301 deaths.
If there are so many deaths in a single year in just one district, one can well imagine the full dimension of this tragedy at the national level.
What is beyond dispute is that India is part of the high incidence zone of snake-bites globally. Therefore, care should be taken to ensure adequate availability of anti-snake venom (the most essential medicine for snake-bite victims), particularly in rural areas, for proper and prompt treatment of snake-bite victims.
At one time, India had actually emerged as a pioneer in the preparation of anti-snake venom (ASV) and what was particularly praiseworthy about India’s achievement was its ability to produce ASV at a lower cost compared to Western countries.
Unfortunately, however, this early success could not be maintained. One of the biggest adversities in this context was the sudden and arbitrary closure of some public sector production facilities that affected the overall production of ASV very adversely. Although some units were re-started, the setback could not be entirely reversed.
In recent years, there has been a persistent shortage of ASV, particularly in several government hospitals. Most victims of snake-bite rush to government hospitals as ASV is supposed to be made available free to them in such facilities. But how can the treatment proceed when the medicine is simply not available?
The situation appears to be particularly worrying at the start of the monsoon season this year, as shortage of ASV is being reported from places where people are most vulnerable, such as Chhattisgarh. At this time of the year, when ASV is most needed, a situation of non-availability in hospitals is very disturbing.
In big cities, the medicine can certainly be procured at higher prices, but this cannot be any consolation to poor patients in the rural areas, whose lives cannot be saved due to the shortage of a well-known essential medicine. This is a glaring example of the craze for high profits leading to an artificial shortage of a life-saving medicine.
To save thousands of lives, the government should take immediate steps on an urgent basis to ensure adequate availability of low-cost ASV.
The writer is a free-lance journalist who has been involved with several social
initiatives and movements.