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Chapter: Modern Medical Toxicology: Organic Poisons (Toxins): Venomous Bites and Stings

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Forensic Issues in Snakebite

Snakes have been venerated and worshipped in India (espe-cially by the aboriginal and Dravidian races) since ages.

Forensic Issues in Snakebite

·              Snakes have been venerated and worshipped in India (espe-cially by the aboriginal and Dravidian races) since ages. The mysterious power of inflicting death possessed by venomous snakes, their slithering movement, and periodic shedding of skin, inspired awe and dread among people of ancient civilisations, and led to their worship in idol form. Among all the snakes, the cobra has been the object of most atten-tion in India. Even today it is worshipped by many Hindus. On Nag Panchami day (as per the Hindu calendar), milk is offered to cobras as a form of propitiation.** Hindus generally do not kill cobras on account of such veneration. Also, there is a popular belief that he who kills a cobra will be cursed for generations.

·              Almost all cases of snakebite reported from around the world are accidental in origin, and the vast majority are due to inadvertent or deliberate provocation of a snake by a human. Snakes rarely if ever, attack human beings on their own. Several occupations are associated with increased risk of snakebite: grass-cutting, working in rubber, coconut, areca nut, and tea and coffee plantations.

·              Perhaps, the only recorded case of suicide accomplished with the help of a venomous snake is that of Queen Cleopatra of Egypt (69–30 BC), who is said to have delib-erately induced a snake (an asp) to bite her.

·              While homicides can be accomplished by using a venomous snake as a tool, actual instances of murder committed by such an exotic method are rare.

·              Deaths due to snakebite are regarded as medicolegal in nature, and a forensic autopsy is mandatory. Unfortunately, clear-cut signs of envenomation may be lacking in such cases, and even fang marks may not always be discernible.

·              Today, immunodiagnosis with the help of ELISA makes it possible to conclusively diagnose death due to snakebite by analysing tissues around bitesite, or blister fluid, or even body fluids such as blood and urine for venom antigens.


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