Cape Town - Thousands of families in under-resourced communities are turning to whatever means possible to warm their houses and shacks and to prepare a hot meal or warm drink.
But, say researchers, with the cold weather comes an increase in one of the most devastating types of injuries to the human body, and that is burns.
Ashley van Niekerk and other researchers at the Medical Research Council found that by global standards South Africa had a “high rate of childhood burns” and as many as 1 300 children a year died of these – although many of the cases were preventable.
“During winter, Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital experiences an increase in children admitted to the hospital with burn injuries,” said Angelique Jordaan, the hospital’s communications officer.
“The use of candles, paraffin stoves and open fires increases, placing children at greater risk of burn injuries.”
While adults are affected too, burn injuries are much more likely in children and are most devastating to a child’s body as it is still developing.
Van Niekerk’s team found that burn injuries were a persistent threat affecting children in low-income settings, and, said the researchers:.
“The highest childhood burn mortality rates are reported in the first three years.
“This concentration of burn mortality and injury among infants and toddlers occurs with the highest rates among very young black children.”
The rates are also higher among boys than for girls.
Roux Martinez and her team at Red Cross’s specialised paediatric burns unit – the only one of its kind in Africa – highlight the effects of burn injuries on the development of a child.
“Burn victims face prolonged and painful treatment and in most cases are left scarred for life and with a permanent physical disability.
“Children’s skin is thinner than adults and their skin burns at lower temperatures, more deeply, making them susceptible to harsher burns with long-term effects. It is one of the most devastating injuries and leaves in its wake physical and mental anguish for a child.”
Jordaan said once a child was discharged from hospital, follow-up rehabilitation and, frequently, long-term reconstructive surgery might be needed.
“It is important that the child returns for these follow-up sessions so that progress can be monitored and challenges can be identified early on.”
Martinez said the effects on a child were multidimensional.
She said burn victims were often teased about their appearance or disfiguration when they re-entered the community, and this could lead to poor self-esteem.
“The long hospital stay and the psychological stress can lead to problems at school and can cause education to become delayed.”
At the specialised unit, 85 percent of burns patients treated are younger than 6 and 98 percent are from disadvantaged communities.
Behind the statistic is Lilian Xipato (not her real name), a 5-year-old girl from Gugulethu, who was severely injured last year when she pulled the cord of a kettle and almost half a litre of boiling water splashed on to her arm.
“Her skin is so badly scarred there,” her mother said, “but we try by all means to tell her that it doesn’t matter how it looks.
“The only lucky thing in this disaster is that it didn’t burn her hand, but her arm is still a big worry for us.”