Each year, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) – also known as Doctors Without Borders – clinics in Gaza treat around 5,000 burn victims, the vast majority of whom are children injured in domestic accidents due to unsafe housing conditions, MSF told Al Arabiya English.
In 2021 alone, MSF treated 5,540 new burn patients, up from 4,591 in 2021 and 3,675 in 2019.
Over 60 percent of these burn victims were children under the age of 15 and 35 percent were below the age of five, many of whom were injured in domestic accidents brought on by poor housing conditions.
Gaza is home to a huge number of Palestinian refugees, comprising 70 percent of its population, the majority of whom reside in camps. More than half of the city’s population is grappling with poverty, according to the United Nations.
As a result, many people live in overcrowded, unsafe housing environments, without proper access to basic needs such as heating, electricity, clean water and sanitation.
“Sticking to a treatment plan is very important, but it is very challenging for our patients in Gaza,” said MSF’s burn activity manager Séverine Brunet, adding that “poor hygiene due to inadequate access to clean water and sanitation increases the risk of infection and antibiotic resistance, which is prevalent in Gaza.”
“Many patients also lack access to good nutrition or have co-morbidities that slow their healing process,” she said.
Burn injuries can have a long-lasting impact on one’s physical health. Treatment can often involve prolonged hospitalization and months of follow-up appoints to avoid disability or severe disfigurement care that Gaza’s healthcare system cannot offer due to political circumstances.
Ensuring proper treatment is provided to burn victims within the first 48 hours of injury is critical for their recovery, but most victims and families in the city are not familiar with the appropriate first aid that is required in such situations due to a lack of awareness.
Toothpaste, tomatoes, and coffee powder are some of the most common home remedies for burn injuries, but some people have resorted to applying bleach or salt to burns.
“The first thing to do is hold the burned area under cool running water,” said Brunet, “and if the injury is serious, you should seek medical treatment as soon as possible.”
Reaching a hospital has proven to be a challenge in Gaza. When four-year-old Nabeel accidently leaned his back against a hot oven in which is grandmother was baking bread, he severely burnt his lower back. Unable to afford a taxi, it took them almost an hour to reach the hospital on a horse draw cart, according to MSF.
To ensure that patients have the best chance of recovery, their burns need frequent dressing changes, follow-up treatments and in some cases, physiotherapy. In an effort to avoid this problem, MSF provides transport to and from its Gaza clinic.
Another severe case involved newborn baby Abdallah who was severely burned when he was just 11 months old. The scalding burn he suffered damaged 50 percent of his body surface area, resulting in two months of hospitalization and a skin transplant from his father.
“A few more sessions and he could be discharged,” said Reem Abu Lebdeh, physiotherapist at the MSF clinic in Khan Younis, based in southern Gaza.
While this is good news, it does not mean the end of the 21-month-old’s treatment.
“Scars do not restrict his movement at the moment,” said Abu Lebdeh, “but this could change as he grows up. He’ll need to keep wearing a pressure garment until his scars stop growing and he should be reassessed regularly.”
Two-year-old girl Sham, a refugee who lives in a rented room with her family of four in Gaza’s Khan Younis refugee camp, a small space that fits a bed, a mattress and two cupboards. With no kitchen, her mother often cooks on the floor of the landing outside the rented room. One day, Sham fell then a hot stove fell on top of her, burning 10 percent of her body.
The girl is also being treated at the same clinic, because of yet another domestic accident.
“Many burn injuries could be prevented through safer housing and through educating people about the risks,” said Brunet.
To improve access to quality care for victims of burns, MSF provides physiotherapy, wound and pain management, and psychological support to burn victims and their caregivers at four clinics located in the Gaza strip. However, if people continue to live in unsafe, overcrowded and unsanitary housing conditions, burn injuries might continue to weigh on Gaza.
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