The Indian Snakebite Initiative helps reduce snakebite deaths in India, with help from Google Earth and Open Data Kit

Ghostwritten article for Google Earth — bylined by Allwin Jesudasan, Joint Director of the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust (MCBT)

Every day all across India, millions of people head into fields, forests, and paddies to perform agricultural and other work. In many cases, they’ll be walking right into the habitats of dangerous snakes. Because of this, interactions are inevitable, and many of those end up as serious injuries or deaths from bites. But in India, our long history of co-existence with snakes has produced acceptance of them, lethal danger and all, to the point where they have become part of our culture – loved, feared, even worshipped. But many people – even inside India – don’t realize that snakebite kills upwards of 50,000 per year here, with many more suffering serious injuries. The WHO has even designated snakebite a neglected tropical disease.

The Indian Snakebite Initiative (ISBI) was founded to reduce this toll, through education, outreach and research. First, we want people to realize that snakebite is not inevitable, that it can be largely avoided with a few simple steps, and that it’s a medical emergency that only medical doctors can properly deal with. Work boots and flashlights are two common items that could prevent a lot of harm if used regularly, so we are getting the word out about them. On the treatment side, in many areas people rely not on medical doctors to treat snakebite and other serious conditions but on local healers and prayer. This is a habit we’re trying to change.  We also want to set up a coordinated system for the production and distribution of antivenom (AV), which is of course a critical part of saving the lives of victims.

Once we started the project, we quickly realized that our greatest need was for data. We didn’t even know the overall scope of the problem nationally (in India the federal government doesn’t play a role in this sort of thing) – the number we usually use for yearly deaths is from 2005, so the actual current number is surely much higher. Beyond that, having data on the snakes, the victims, the treatments – especially geo data – was going to be critical in helping us form our response. Having factual backup helps us get buy-in from the public for our outreach, and from local governments and medical personnel we want as partners in our efforts.

This is where Open Data Kit (ODK) came into the picture. Now we have rescuers, first responders, doctors and others across the country entering snake incident data on the ODK forms we have designed. The data is detailed – everything from location and the species of snake to demographic data about the victim and what treatments were given, and more. And of course, when this data is overlaid in MyMaps, we are able to visualize the problem in whole new ways. This research and data gathering has never even been attempted, and it’s going to provide new understanding of snakes, what makes them bite and how to treat victims. It will help us perfect best practices and direct resources where they are most needed.

We are hoping MyMaps will help us solve one of the toughest challenges we face: that of having enough of various kinds of antivenom. It’s a very complicated problem because the primary AV we manufacture is only effective with four species of snake. But there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of different snake subspecies spread across the country, and in many cases, a different AV must be produced for each one. This is a long-term goal: to have all local hospitals supplied with the AV needed for local snakes.

We also want to find ways to let community members make use of the data by having a system that helps them find the right hospital to go to without wasting time.

If the problem of snakebite is going to be solved, it’s going to take not just conservationists, doctors, or governments, but all of society. People should not still be dying from snakebite in the 21st century. We have the capability to reverse this.

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