Speech to the Fourth Pan African Burns Society Congress
Good morning, I would like to thank Dr Elbie van der Merwe, the head of the Tygerberg Hospital Burns Unit and the Pan African Burns Society for inviting me to your 4th Congress.
I would also like to extend a very special welcome to our fellow Africans from other parts of the continent and representatives from the International Society for Burn Injuries.
It is wonderful to see this spirit of Pan Africanism where our medical experts come together to share their expertise on dealing with the impacts of burns.
To me this is where the real partnerships between nations on our continent happen - between those that are serious about dealing with the real challenges faced by our people, and especially the poor.
It is also extremely appropriate that you are having the 4th PABS here in Cape Town, right in the middle of our fire season.
Thousands of fires have already been fought by the Province's fire fighting services this summer and the Western Cape Department of Social Development has distributed thousands of hot meals, food parcels and blankets to the many in our province that have been affected.
Our hospitals have had to treat many serious burns, many of them suffered by children.
To give you an idea of just how serious the problem of fires is in Cape Town and the wider Western Cape, one of the Department's staff members sends out a text message every single time there is a fire.
I specifically asked him to include my number on those text messages that he sends just so that while I am sitting in meetings, I am continuously reminded of the reality of life for the most vulnerable in our society.
To give you an example, on the afternoon of the 17th of December 2010 a text message came through saying,
'8 structures destroyed by fire, 30 people displaced, 6th avenue, Kensington.'
First thing the next morning another text message arrived, this time saying,
'30 structures burned, 50 people displaced, 1 adult male deceased, 28 Siyahlala, Dunoon.'
That evening another 2 structures burned down, displacing 4 people in Nomzamo, in Strand, after which a further 7 structures were raised in Site B, Khayelitsha, displacing a further 18 people.'
This all happened in under 24 hours a few days before Christmas.
Families that probably did not have enough money to buy a Christmas lunch were stripped of everything.
To me this means that the disfigurement caused by fires goes beyond faces, arms, legs and torsos and affects lives as a whole.
The poor do not have insurance so everything they own, from the R50 or R100 in one's jacket pocket to the sentimental photos of loved ones, has gone up in flames.
For children, the most vulnerable of all, school uniforms, text books and toys are gone for good.
Injuries that they sustain can carry a physical and emotional scar for life.
Our social workers are on hand to give fire victims trauma counselling, while they are also informed of their right to apply for a Social Relief Grant.
Of course, the fires have a major impact on scarce resources, taking millions from our budgets each year.
It is my belief that as is the case with all other social problems, we must put more and more resources into preventing fires and therefore burns and the other consequences of fires.
Many burn injuries are avoidable, according to a study in the South African Medical Journal by Steenkamp, W. C. van der Merwe, A. E., & de Lange, R. (2002).
The Western Cape reported that paraffin stoves were contributors to 25% of admissions to the burns unit and 24 of the 38 cases reported were as a result of flame stoves exploding.
We need to educate our people about the dangers of paraffin stoves so that at the very least they are kept out of reach of children.
The Department of Education should educate children around health and safety within the home, as part of Life Orientation in schools.
Fires, though, are not the only cause of burns, or the most common cause.
According to a study done at the Red Cross Children's Hospital here in Cape Town from the 1 April to 30 September 2007, 294 children were admitted.
Hot liquids caused 83% of these burns, while 36% of the total occurred in children aged 2 years and younger. Children over the age of five were equally at risk of being burnt by hot liquids.
Here again children and the poor are the most vulnerable in our society, with the Red Cross Hospital study showing that the majority of young victims were from informal settlement.
It is not difficult to imagine how in a cramped shack a child could roll off a bed and into a bucket of boiling water, or have scalding water spilt on them.
Research has shown that our situation is no different to that in other developing countries so it is crucial that our medical experts continue to meet and share your expertise.
However, governments also have a very important role to play; education, health, social development and housing are all departments that need to take responsibility for our most vulnerable.
The role of governments must be preventative, holistic and rehabilitative, because often a person will remain disabled for life and require physical rehabilitation.
Our children who suffer from burns often miss out on years of school and have to struggle with extremely difficult social stigmatisation.
I would like to call on education departments all over the world to ensure all children who are unable to attend school due to medical reasons have access to education at hospitals, or in their homes.
Governments must also speed up the improvement of the socio-economic conditions of our people, with the eventual goal being to replace the cramped, fire-friendly informal settlements with safe neighbourhoods.
Government must form partnerships with organisations such as PABS, in looking beyond the simplistic treatment paradigm.
The work done by your organisation shows that medical professionals dealing with burns in our country, on the continent and indeed around the world do not see themselves as being merely professionals.
This is personal, for all of you.
Often, I know you are forced to make decisions about a person's life, most significantly a child's future.
It is not just about life and death; it is about the quality of life one can live after suffering from severe burns.
All of you here are showing that you are prepared to do more than just your jobs.
And my experience is that this kind of selflessness is fundamental when people want to affect real change in the lives of our people.
The protection of our children must continue to be the chief catalyst for improved prevention.
I wish you a successful Congress.
I thank you.
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