Burn injuries sustained in ‘kitchen accidents’ claim 91,000 lives of women on average annually in the country. It’s time this insidious form of gender violence became a public health issue
A country raising its voice against violence against women has so far ignored a health concern that is taking a heavier toll than the most serious health conditions. Statistics tell the story: India recorded 45,000 maternal deaths in 2015, cervical cancer claims 74,000 lives annually, and 36,735 cases of rape were recorded in 2014. And the health concern that hasn’t become a talking point yet — burn injuries — claims 91,000 lives of women on average every year. In almost all cases it is the kitchen in the marital home where the woman ostensibly blunders, putting her life at risk. And most victims are young.
‘Not glamorous enough’
A recently-published paper on ‘Gendered pattern of burn injuries in India: a neglected health issue’ in the Reproductive Health Matters (RHM) journal seeks that this gender violence be made a public health issue. It notes: “Deaths due to burns are four times higher among women aged 18-35 years”, and goes on to state that deaths due to burns are one of the main causes of death in the 15 to 44 age group. Authored by public health professionals Padma Bhate-Deosthali and Lakshmi Lingam, the paper states that of the 140,000 fatal deaths due to burn injuries, 91,000 are of women as per the national burns programme of the Indian government. The paper notes it has never been explored why young girls die of accidental burns after marriage, but cook safely in their natal homes. Dr. Madhuri Gore, former head of theDepartment of Surgery at Mumbai’s Sion Hospital, recalls no change either in the nature of injuries or the government’s attitude in prioritising burns as a health concern in the 25 years she spent working on the issue. “These cases are reported more from the low socio-economic strata and do not have the glamour of cardiac diseases or hypertension,” she says. Citing from a study she conducted, she said 40 per cent of the 200 burns cases she analysed were suicidal or homicidal and the remaining were reported as accidental. But police cases were registered only in 5 per cent of the cases.
Another analysis of cases was done by Dr. Vinita Puri, head of the Department of Plastic Surgery at Mumbai’s King Edward Memorial (KEM) Hospital, where again cases that appeared suicidal were reported as accidental burns. “It is unlikely for a person to suffer 60 to 80per cent burns if it is accidental,” she says.
While some doctors say cases have dropped with fewer households using kerosene stoves for cooking now, data suggests otherwise. “As per the national burns programme itself, there is no drop and the history of cases has moved from stove to cylinder bursts or clothes catching fire while cooking,” says Ms. Bhate-Deosthali.
Leaf of hope
While psychological scars from such burn injuries are hard to heal, a few treatment initiatives have brought succour to victims, one of them being the use of banana leaf as dressing for wounds. Developed by Dr. Gore and clinically proven effective, it is currently in use at many centres across the country. Also, skin banks have come up in different parts of the country, for donated skin to be used in grafts for treating big wounds. Burns units in 67 medical colleges and 19 district hospitals are also planned under the 12th Five Year Plan.
But there is no focus on prevention yet. The RHM paper points out that unlike road traffic accidents, ‘kitchen accident’ deaths have not prompted any campaign to make kitchens safe.
Keywords: Gender violence, burn injuries, maternal deaths