Severe head injuries and coma have been identified as second only to death among South African children from road accidents, which are preventable and are the single largest killer of this population.
This has been reiterated by stakeholders as the country marked the end of national Transport Month in October, with statistics indicating that injuries caused over 60% more deaths than HIV/ Aids, TB and malaria combined.
Experts said the biggest killer was traumatic brain injury, and the most common cause of this was vehicle accidents.
“A child is eight times more likely to die in South Africa than the UK, and 10 times more at risk of death than a child in Switzerland.”
A recently released report said vehicle accidents were the single-most preventable cause of death and disability in South Africa.
Speaking on the matter was Professor Anthony Figaji, who heads the Paediatric Neurosurgery Unit at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital and the African Brain Child Initiative at UCT, the leading research unit into traumatic brain injury in children in sub-Saharan Africa.
“The evidence around the efficacy of seat belts is abundant. Trauma kills more children than cancer, and yet, unlike cancer, it is preventable.”
Figaji is driving a public awareness campaign with authorities and the community to get children to “Be Quick to Click” and buckle up their seat belts.
Prevention remained key, the message said, with the use of seat belts reducing the risk of fatal injury by 40 – 50% for drivers and front-seat passengers, and by up to 25% for rear-seat passengers.
This is supported by the World Health Organization Road Traffic Injury fact sheet 2022, which said traumatic brain injuries and the impact on children became starkly apparent during the Covid-19 national lockdown.
“And this at a time when people were forcibly kept off the roads.”
Figaji said what was sad was seeing the human cost of vehicle accidents and the injuries in children they could not save and in those they could, but whose lives were permanently impacted by injuries that were preventable with the click of a buckle.
This was particularly notable for children from lower-income households, for whom disability following traumatic brain injuries increased their disadvantages in life.
The Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital found that 80% of children presenting with severe head injuries – in a coma or on life support – were injured in a vehicle accident.
Of children admitted following a severe motor accident as a passenger, 96% had not been restrained by a seat belt or car seat – sobering figures in a country with a road traffic fatality rate almost double the global average.
“An unrestrained child, due to their smaller size, is likely to be catapulted from a vehicle on impact, increasing the risk of death or disability. In addition, the developing brain is more at risk and less protected than the adult brain,” Figaji said.
Most children who survive a serious brain injuries were left with some form of neurological disability, behavioural disorder and/or learning deficit, which could have a wide-ranging impact on a young life, from difficulty with school and co-ordination, to full-blown disability, where the child is bedridden, unable to interact with the environment or those around them, or to perform daily functions such as washing or eating.
Experts called for more stringent policing of safety belt usage: “It is argued that we live in a society where seat belt usage can’t be policed, but during Covid-19 lockdown, people were being arrested for walking on the beach. This is a case where there is abundant evidence society can indeed be mobilised,” said Figaji.
“We need to enforce fear of the consequences for not wearing a seat belt in the same way we approach drunk driving.”