The recent tragic news of a child who died from snake bite at Wayanad dominated the headlines for several days. The child was apparently bitten by a snake that was hiding in a crevice inside a classroom. This article is specifically written to outline the steps that may be taken to prevent snake bites in schools and homes.
Identification of common snakes and treatment of snakebite have already been addressed in my earlier article: Click here to read
Essential steps in preventing snake bite
1. Do not let garbage accumulate in the school premises. Food waste attracts rats, and this in turn invites snakes. Snakes also arrive in search of frogs, lizards, chameleons and snails. Rodent control must be given priority.
2. While constructing compound walls around schools using stones or bricks, make sure that there are no gaps or holes where reptiles can hide. Plastering with cement is essential. Periodic maintenance is required to fill gaps that appear with time, as a result of erosion.
3. Do not let logs, firewood, bricks, tiles or other construction material accumulate in the school premises. Reptiles are known to hide underneath.
4. Playgrounds are often surrounded by shrubbery and bushes. While playing football and cricket, children frequently venture into wooded areas to retrieve the ball. In their excitement, they may blindly reach underneath a bush where a snake could be lying in wait. The child’s finger, being a warm object can be detected by heat sensors located on the heads of vipers. They can strike at lightning speed, mistaking the moving finger for a small animal. Children must therefore be instructed to use a long stick to retrieve the ball from the undergrowth.
5. Snakebites that occur during playtime or after dark occasionally get mistaken by children for a thorn prick, thus delaying medical attention. This is because the snake might not always get noticed during the incident.
6. Snakes may take shelter inside schools and office buildings where old files, papers and books are kept undisturbed over a period of time. Periodic clean-up is therefore necessary.
7. Some schools in rural areas are housed in old dilapidated buildings. They have hollow foundations with multiple burrows, in which reptiles are known to hide. Such buildings must be periodically refurbished, and all gaps plastered meticulously.
8. While clearing weeds and bushes around the school property, remember that snakes might come out of their natural hiding places and seek shelter inside the school building. Therefore, proper precautions must be taken before such clean-ups are done.
9. Vipers are sometimes found amongst dried leaves on the ground, underneath trees. It is almost impossible to detect a viper in such settings because of its remarkable camouflage. Regular cleaning of school premises is therefore necessary.
10. Children must be encouraged to walk only on designated paths and not through grassy or wooded areas. They should never walk barefoot through such areas.
11. Children must be discouraged from venturing into abandoned properties near the school premises; such areas can be infested with snakes.
12. Snakes are frequently found in rubber estates, amongst fallen leaves and twigs. Small vipers can be particularly hard to spot.
13. While walking in between paddy fields where a harvest has recently been completed, children must be careful not to tread on snakes. Cobras and other snakes frequent such areas looking for rats, who come there in search of grains. The burrows built by rodents serve as convenient homes for visiting snakes.
14. Snakes occasionally enter houses that are built on low ground, without sufficient barrier with the outdoor premises. The white-banded Krait, an extremely poisonous animal with paralysing neurotoxin -- is known to enter homes at night in search of food. The snake may accidentally bite a child who is sleeping on the floor, as the child turns or stirs during sleep. To keep snakes out in such settings, gaps beneath doors must be filled. Children must not sleep on the floor in open spaces.
15. Snakes are known to seek shelter inside shoes that are kept outside the house. Children must be instructed to not keep shoes outside. Shoes that are left outside must be checked for any hidden reptiles before wearing them the following day.
16. Those who raise poultry in their premises are at risk for visiting snakes. Homes that have bird nests nearby are also at risk. Snakes love to feed on bird eggs. They may pay a visit, after being attracted by the odour of the nest.
17. Tree branches that touch the house must be trimmed, as snakes are known to climb trees and enter the top floor of homes in search of food and shelter. Window nets help prevent them from entering. Any drainage pipes that allow snakes to hide or enter the home must be protected with a wire mesh. Small ponds on the property can attract snakes too.
18. If a baby snake is found, remember that multiple other snakes could be found nearby. A search is therefore warranted.
19. Snakes come out of their burrows during rain. Children must be warned to be careful while walking after a rain. 20. Even an apparently dead snake can bite; this is a unique feature of reptiles. It has been observed that even a snake’s head that has been cut off recently, can bite from reflex action. Therefore, one must be extremely careful while handling a dead snake.
21. Children must never attempt to handle snakes, particularly after getting inspired by videos on social media. Snakes can bite at lightning speed. They can reach further than most of us can imagine. Their behaviour cannot always be predicted. Remember that even the greatest snake experts in the world have been bitten multiple times, some of which proved to be fatal.
22. Even if a poisonous variety of snake has bitten the child, it is not necessary that envenomation should occur. In other words, not all bites from poisonous snakes result in injection of venom into the body. These are called ‘dry bites.’ The cause of this behaviour is unclear. There was a myth that dry bites occurred because the snake had a meal recently; this has been proved wrong.
23. One must remember that non-poisonous snakes also are well-known to bite. Even if we think it was a non-poisonous snake that bit the patient, it is safer to take the patient to the hospital, as it is not easy for a lay person to identify all venomous snakes correctly.
24. The treatment for snake bite is anti-snake venom (ASV). One must not waste time trying traditional remedies. An occasional allergic reaction can occur to ASV, but treatment for this is readily available in all hospitals. In India, a common polyvalent serum is used for all poisonous snake bites. Therefore, it is not necessary that the snake is visually identified in all cases.
25. A patient with suspected snakebite must be taken to the nearest centre that has ASV in stock, because valuable time could be lost otherwise. Not all cases of snakebite need ASV. The doctor will carefully observe for signs of envenomation and then only administer the ASV—even if it was a witnessed bite from an apparently poisonous variety of snake.
The role of ASV is simply to neutralise venom that is circulating in the body. However, if the venom has already affected the kidney, nervous system or blood, additional supportive treatment measures will be necessary such as dialysis, ventilator and blood products. If the hospital administering ASV does not have these advanced facilities, the patient may be transferred to such a centre afterwards with suitable precautions.
Due to the warm tropical climate and dense vegetation, snakes are common in Kerala. They are frequently found in wooded hilly areas. Schools authorities in such areas should know the nearest centre where anti-snake venom is available, and must promptly take all suspected snakebite cases to this hospital.
It is helpful to call the hospital by phone in advance to confirm that ASV is available in stock. This will help avoid delay in administering life-saving treatment.
Teachers might not necessarily know how to react in all medical emergencies, as they are not medically qualified. It is therefore useful to know the local doctor’s number, for any quick queries before transporting a child to hospital.
In summary, as the saying goes, trouble seldom comes with prior warning. However, if we act diligently, we can create a safer environment at home, school and at work. Emergencies such as snakebite require prompt medical attention at a suitably equipped centre.