Myanmar | 15 March 2013

Snakebites are an unexpected and under evaluated risk for farmers, report says

A group of women working in the field where the Russell Vipers live Photo: Libera Antelmi


According to the World Health Organization, snakebites cause more death and disability than some far more notorious tropical diseases, including dengue fever, cholera, Japanese encephalitis, Chagas disease and leishmaniasis. The Global Snakebite Initiative describes snakebite as a leading medical emergency in Asia/Pacific, particularly in Myanmar.2 They are thought to kill approximately 1000 people a year3, which is almost 100 times more than neighboring Thailand on the same amount of estimated bites. However, it is almost impossible to know the exact number since there are many unreported cases of those who seek treatment from traditional healers, from monks or who simply don’t get to hospital in time. The majority of snakebite victims are thought to be farmers, with cases peaking in the paddy harvest season from October to December, and the cultivation season from May to July.4 There are several factors that may explain why farmers are at significantly higher risk than others within the community. Firstly, the majority of people in Myanmar engage in farming activity and secondly, snakes inhabit the same spaces preying on mice and rats that search for food in paddy fields.

In order to gain a better understanding of community members’ perceptions of the problem and where snakebite fits into other hazards communities are exposed to; some of the impacts or effects snakebites can have on individuals, families and community members; and exploring in more depth how the problem may be addressed, CWS-Asia/Pacific, in collaboration with Myanmar Red Cross Society, embarked on a small-scale research study. Using a survey questionnaire and with the help of Red Cross volunteers, we interviewed over 600 community members from three townships in the central dry zone of Myanmar, where snakes are known to be prevalent but in villages and wards that were randomly selected. Data was collated, analyzed and translated into this report.

While there were several limitations to the study, the results showed that the majority of those interviewed engage in farming activity, as was predicted. The results also demonstrated that while the majority of community members interviewed believe the problem to be less severe than ten years ago, they still view snakes and snakebites as both a very serious natural hazard risk and significant health concern for them, their families and their communities that needs to be acknowledge and addressed accordingly.

Communities interviewed perceive snakebites to be the second highest natural hazard risk after fire and ahead of drought, flash flooding and other well known hazard risks. It is also seen as the highest health risk over malnutrition, diarrhea and other more widely publicized diseases and health issues.

The number of respondents who revealed that they or their families had suffered from snakebite was alarming. Around 20% of respondents from Magway and Pakkoku and 12% from Shwebo had either been bitten or had had a family member bitten. As also predicted, the Russell’s Viper, one of the most venomous snakes in the world accounted for the vast majority of bites. The impacts or effects these bites had varied considerably from household to household but as mentioned in the limitations of the study, it requires further research into the true socio-economic cost of the problem.

Some solutions to the problem were sought from the communities on how to deal with the problem that led to a set of key recommendations, which include:

• Snakebite should be integrated into existing health and hazard risk reduction programs, taking into account and building on existing coping mechanisms locally

• Awareness and education on how communities can prevent or avoid snakes and snakebites should be included in these programs

• The Ministry of Health should be assisted in upgrading and strengthening referral systems

• More essential first aid training should be conducted at community level that is in line with modern techniques proven to save lives

• The Ministry of Health should be supported in developing standard operating procedures that should be disseminated to all service providers at community level as well as township and district level


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