‘Like Uber for snake emergencies’: tech takes the sting out of bites in rural India

Guardian Technology 20 Jul 2021 05:30

When 12-year-old Anay Sujith felt a sharp sting in his leg while asleep in his hut in a village in Kerala, “I started yelling and woke up my parents,” he recalls. They immediately sought help – not with a phone call, but through an app.

A team from Kannur Wildlife Rescuers (KWR) reached the boy’s home, in Ramatheru village in the coastal city of Kannur, within minutes and he was admitted to hospital 20 minutes later. He had been bitten four times by a venomous Russell’s viper, one of the “big four” snakes in India responsible for the greatest number of venomous snakebites.

Sarpa (Snake Awareness, Rescue and Protection app), which saved Anay’s life, is one of a growing number of life-saving homegrown snake apps in India that provide information about the ophidians, get people treatment for bites and help doctors to develop antivenoms.

Screengrab of SARPA.

Sarpa, SnakeHub, Snake Lens, Snakepedia, Serpent and the Big Four Mapping Project are among those proving increasingly popular with the public, conservationists and rescuers.

Serpent includes a guide to all of India’s snakes and a search facility to find the nearest hospital that treats bites. It can also connect users in real-time to an expert to help tackle snakebite emergencies. The Big Four Mapping Project, meanwhile, shows reported snake sightings and bites across the country.

An estimated 1.2 million people died from snakebites in India between 2000 and 2019, the equivalent of more than 58,000 a year, according to a recent paper.

Snakebites are a global health priority, according to the World Health Organization. Between 81,000 and 138,000 people around the world die from snakebites each year, and about three times that number are left with permanent disabilities.

A screengrab of Sarpa.

“Poor farmers, cattle grazers and shepherds moving around barefoot in rodent-infested fields are easy victims. Limited availability of anti-snake venom and expensive treatment put an enormous financial burden on the poor,” he says. “Despite this, snake bites are one of the most neglected diseases.”

“All rescues are currently happening through Sarpa, which has had 35,000 downloads since its launch last year,” says Louies. “Earlier, there was no record of rescues from snakebites. But now, users can simply download the app and get access to a rescuer available in their vicinity.”

Sandeep Das rescues a Russell’s viper.

Snakebites have been traditionally underreported and inadequately treated in India, with poor literacy and a lack of information on how to deal with them aggravating the problem, says Neelakantan. But the apps are helping to change that.

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IndiaAnay SujithKannur Wildlife RescuersRamatheruSnakepedia
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