Lack of knowledge about snakes and snakebite envenomation (SBE) is a major factor that increases disabilities and deaths and the economic hardship they cause, particularly in agricultural communities in developing countries. Through a community education programme in Tamil Nadu, Reading researchers demonstrated the effectiveness of using targeted education tools to engage at-risk communities resulting in positive changes in treatment seeking behaviour and care.

Snakebite envenomation is a neglected tropical disease that primarily affects agricultural communities in developing countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that up to 2.7 million snakebite envenomings result in 140,000 deaths and 500,000 permanent disabilities each year. Over 40% of these deaths per year (58,000) occur in India, leading it to be dubbed by some as the ’snakebite capital of the world’.

Research into SBE by Dr Sakthivel Vaiyapuri at the University of Reading, included a survey of 30,000 households in rural Tamil Nadu which established that lack of knowledge about snakes and SBE is a major factor that increases disabilities and deaths and the economic hardship they cause. Vaiyapuri and his team have developed and deployed an evidence-based, multifaceted public health education programme about the dangers of SBE for at-risk communities. The campaign aimed to dispel myths around snakes and snakebites, to provide clear advice and simple ‘do’s and don’ts’ on how to respond to snakebites and, ultimately, to positively influence the behaviour of victims and their relatives in seeking prompt hospital treatment rather than practising inappropriate first aid or visiting traditional healers.

Through a concerted public engagement campaign, the programme reached over 7 million people (around 10% of Tamil Nadu’s population) during 2019-20. Over 50,000 schoolchildren and students and 200,000 villagers were reached via awareness assemblies and leaflets. A 25-minute television documentary broadcast at peak viewing times was seen by an estimated 4 million people and over 100 articles in local, state and national newspapers reached a combined readership of 65.6 million. A one-day symposium provided clinical knowledge and training about snakebites to 250 community healthcare professionals. Dissemination was widened by involving local-level ‘champions’ among clinicians, pharmacists, government and NGO staff.

Evaluation of the engagement activities indicated that at least 90% of attendees were able to recall the key messages, with 85% able to recall them after 12 months. Notably, 60% of snakebite patients admitted to a major referral hospital in 2019 said that they were aware of the campaign and 90% arrived for treatment in under four hours (compared with 50% previously). Remarkably, 95% arrived without seeking traditional treatment (compared with 64% in 2018). Consequently a greater number of patients were discharged sooner, with fewer complications and improved long-term outcomes, reducing treatment costs/economic burden for more than 80% of victims.

Recently Dr Vaiyapuri has been working with the Tamil Nadu government to establish a Snakebite Multidisciplinary Action Group and with the Indian Government to extend the education programme to other Indian states. With over 5.8 billion people at risk of encountering venomous snakebites worldwide, this approach provides a robust framework to educate other rural communities and reduce SBE-induced complications, resulting disabilities and deaths.

Find out more
Snakebite venom expert joins World Health Organization roster to address neglected issue (press release, March 2021)

Low-cost snakebite campaign in south India saving lives (press release, Dec 2020)

Preventing snakebites (research highlight, Jan 2019)

Preventing snake bite (short video of Dr Vaiyapuri talking about his work, June 2019)

View the full impact case study on the REF 2021 website: Evidence and action to address the burden of snakebite envenoming influences international policy and saves lives in Tamil Nadu.