Healing burns with fish skin source: the wider image:
Every parent dreads something bad happening to their child. For Emma Sibanyoni of Polokwane, her worst nightmare came true last year when her daughter, Nkosi, 7, suffered severe burns in a fire that broke out while she was sleeping at home with relatives. The house caught fire in a suspected candle accident.

When Sibanyoni, pictured, got a call about Nkosi’s accident she was away visiting relatives with her 2-year-old daughter. The call was from a Polokwane hospital and it was news that would change her life.

“The doctors called me to say that my daughter had been burnt,” says the tearful mother, as she recounts the events of that day while sitting at Nkosi’s bedside at Red Cross Children’s Hospital, where Nkosi has been receiving treatment for the past six months.

“When I got to the hospital my child’s face was burnt beyond recognition. I couldn’t tell that it was her. Her face, her back and hands didn’t look like hers any more... it was so bad,” she said.

Sibanyoni says she saw Nkosi’s life flash in front of her. “She used to sing and dance a lot before she got the burns, but now she still dances, but its just not the same.

“Her life has completely changed. Emotionally she seems okay but some days are too sad and difficult for her. Last week she asked me if the fingers she lost would ever grow back and be fine again,” she says.

The two have been staying at Red Cross Children’s Hospital since November, and Nkosi is still receiving gruelling treatment, which includes face reconstruction and intense skin grafting.

Nkosi’s story is receiving attention this month as May is national Burns Awareness Month. Not only are burns perhaps the most devastating of all injuries, but they can leave survivors with both physical and mental distress - particularly children, who still have their future ahead of them.

Red Cross Children’s Hospital has the only specialised paediatric burns unit in Africa.

Every year the hospital treats about 3 500 children for burns, including children treated in the burns outpatient clinic.

The majority of these patients are from poor and marginalised communities and a third are younger than a year old. The hospital’s patients are referred from the Western Cape, the rest of South Africa, and Africa.

About 1 300 of these cases are severe burns. 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.

The greatest cause of burns in small children is fluid burns, accounting for about 84% of burn injuries treated at the hospital.

Eighty-five percent of burn patients treated are younger than 6 and 98% are from disadvantaged communities.

As the winter months approach, the use of candles, paraffin stoves and open fires increases, placing children at even greater risk.

Most burn injuries are accidental.

Dr Gary Passos from the hospital’s burns unit said more opportunities to provide information on burns, and prevention messages, should be made available.

According to the 2013/2014 database, almost 1000 admissions were made at Red Cross Children’s Hospital with many burn victims around the age of 3.

Passos says while patients usually stayed in hospital for five to six days, overall flame injuries tended to be more severe and these patients were admitted for an average period of 14.6 days.

On average, treatment of burns costs just over R15000 per child, with scalds and flame injuries considered more expensive than liquid burns.

“Keep kettles, and their cords on high counter tops which toddlers cannot reach, and don’t leave toddlers unattended anywhere near a recently boiled kettle.

“Of course this applies equally to water boiled in pots for cooking or bathing.

“Don’t carry containers of hot water around when children are underfoot, accidents can easily happen,” cautions Passos.