Treating 19,243 snakebite victims with 98% success rate, then, is no mean feat. Dr Dhirubhai Chhaganbhai Patel, who runs a hospital in Dharampur, now wants other doctors and researchers to benefit from his experience. He is documenting every case he has handled in his career spanning 33 years.
“Saving a snakebite victim means racing against time. The first two to four hours are crucial. The patient is writhing in pain. The deadly toxins have coursed through the bloodstream, disrupting haemostasis, and attacking the nervous system and tissues of vital organs. I have seen this play out 19,243 times as that’s the number of snakebite patients I have attended to since 1990 with 98% success rate,” claims the general surgeon, who is also the vice-chairman of the Government Snake Research Institute (SRI) in Dharampur. It is the second such institute in the country, and the first that adheres to World Health Organization’s protocols.
Most snakebite cases are recorded between June and September and the victims are usually farm labourers. Between 2020 and March 2023, the department of health registered 23,537 cases in Gujarat, 115 of them being fatal. Nearly half of these deaths have occurred in the eight municipal corporation limits, except Rajkot and Vadodara.
Dr Patel receives around 1,200 snakebite cases a year at his hospital, largely from Dang, Navsari, Surat, Tapi, and Chhota Udepur in Gujarat, and Nashik and Palghar in Maharashtra.
“The treatment, comprising administering analgesics, fluid therapy, haemodialysis, antibiotic therapy and ventilator support, is expensive and can push families into poverty,” he says.
Dr Patel is also on the advisory panel of the task force formed by Indian Council for Medical Research and National Centre for Disease Control to measure annual incidence, mortality and treatment costs. “Treatment gets delayed as victims often approach faith healers who employ unscientific techniques.”
Dr Patel says he was 14 years old when he saw snakebite snuff out a life. “That day, I decided to become a doctor and serve the tribes. I am the son of tribal farm labourers and understand their struggles.” His first patient was a 20-year-old. “She was bitten by a cobra and brought dead to the hospital. I cried that day.” His “most complicated” case was an eight-month-old bitten by a common krait. “This was in 1993. Today, the baby is a father and visits me every year,” he says, smiling.
(With inputs from Himanshu Kaushik, Yagnesh Mehta)