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Fire Safety and Burns Awareness Week

As we mark the Fire Safety and Burns Awareness Week, victims speak of their harrowing experiences and learning to live with scars that will never heal

Evelyn Makena @evemake_g

Every 60 minutes there is at least one burn incident in Kenya.  This means that at least 8,760 lives are drastically changed annually because of burn incidents. The risk of burns lurks in many obvious and hidden places all around us.

It can happen as a result of leaving the car engine on while in a petrol station, overloading an electric socket, scalding on hot water or tea, a gas explosion or burning from hot oil.  Irrespective of how it happens, burns tend to drain victims financially, leaving people scarred for life.

One of the burn survivors is Dan Matakaya, who suffered a horrific acid attack in 2013.  Dan, a police officer, had returned home after a night patrol one September morning at around 5.00am. He got to his house at a police post in Kisii where he was working and found his wife home.

Tired from a night of work, he immediately retreated to bed. He was woken up by a burning sensation on his face. He suffered severe burns on his face after his wife poured sulphuric acid on him.

Dan Matakaya sustained burns in a horrific acid attack by his wife.

Prior to the incident, the couple had lost a nine-month-old child due to illness and that had caused tension between the two.

“I screamed and was rescued by a neighbour who rushed me to hospital,” he says.

Owing to the severity of the burns, Dan was later airlifted to Kenyatta National Hospital. In the immediate aftermath of the burn he lost his eyesight, had blocked nostrils and developed contractures, a permanent shortening of muscles or joints. After several surgeries and skin grafting, he was discharged in 2014.

The incident changed the trajectory of his life. He completely lost his sight due to the burns and had to enroll to a school for the blind to learn how to live with the disability. Besides, the 31-year-old still harbours emotional scars from the incident and is currently pursuing a course in counselling psychology at Mount Kenya University.

Dan is one of the people whose lives have been disrupted after a burn incident. Data from the World Health Organisation indicates that burns contribute to loss of 18 million disability adjusted years and causes 250,000 deaths each year. More than 905 of the deaths are from middle and low-income countries.

Getrude Katula, who was burnt in 1997 when she was three years old, still lives with the scars. “So severe were the burns that later  my left breast could not grow normally,” she says.

As a child she had to contend with recovering from the physical trauma but as a teenager, Getrude faced emotional trauma, and even contemplated committing suicide.

Yusuf Otieno, another victim breathes with difficulty, months after he suffered internal and external burns due to a stove explosion in March 2018. On the fateful day, Otieno, a resident of Kayole, had just prepared dinner when a stove exploded as he was putting it off.

James Gitau from Kenya Power says illegal tapping of power is a major cause of fire incidents.

“The pain on the wounds is excruciating. On top of that, my wife left with our children after I was burnt,” he says.

Dan, Getrude and Yusuf are among thousands of Kenyans that suffer burns every year.

Globally, burns are a leading public health concern accounting for 180,000 deaths every year.  Burns are also a leading cause of morbidity, and can lead to prolonged hospital stay, disfigurement, disability and attract stigma and rejection.

Dr Loise Kahoro, plastic surgeon at the Kenyatta National Hospital with 16 years of experience at the Burns Unit, says that there has been an increase in burns caused by electrical faults,  gas explosions  and chemical  attacks mainly due to domestic assaults. 

The first aid treatment for a burn victim includes giving them a lot of fluids. “When one is burnt, the outer layer of the skin goes off and the body loses water.

Excessive loss of water can damage kidneys and other internal organs,” she says. Another urgent precaution to take if one catches fire is to stop, drop on the ground and roll. It prevents spread of the fire. 

According to James Gitau, Manager Safety, Health and Environment, Kenya Power, tapping power illegally and overloading electrical appliances are some of the culprits of electrical fires. 

Kenyatta National Hospital  in collaboration with Burns Society and other stakeholders are marking Fire Safety and Burns Awareness Week themed Zuia Moto, Zuia Gharama. The annual event that started on Monday aims to sensitise the public on fire safety.

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