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Photo of a child playing in front of a cooking fire
Photo courtesy of Shahla Yekta

Of Hearth and Home – and Health

A simple U of T innovation could help prevent burns among millions of children in the Global South

It’s a shocking statistic: Every year, worldwide, nearly 11 million people – many of them children – suffer burns serious enough to require medical attention. Two U of T medical colleagues have seen the heart-wrenching evidence first-hand.

On a trip to Kenya in 2011, Dr. Leila Kasrai, a professor in plastic and reconstructive surgery at U of T’s Faculty of Medicine, and Shahla Yekta (BSc 1999, PhD 2005), a public health researcher, visited two hospitals in Nairobi, where they saw many children recuperating from serious burns. The injuries often occurred to the children’s hands, leaving many of them fingerless. “It was devastating,” Kasrai says.

Spurred by that eye-opening mission, Kasrai and Yekta set out to help prevent burns among children in developing countries.

Through interviews with mothers in low-income sections of the Kenyan cities of Nairobi and Nakura, they discovered that cookstoves pose the greatest danger. That’s because most homes have only one room and cooking is usually done at floor level, leaving younger children at risk of touching the hot stove or heated liquid, such as water or oil.

“Mothers were aware of the danger, but the burns typically happened very quickly, when they looked away for a moment,” says Kasrai.

Together with Amref Health Africa, an NGO, the two researchers developed a small, foldable barrier made from locally available materials that the mothers could use while they were cooking and, due to the extremely small living quarters, put aside when they were done. Last year, the researchers recruited families to test five models and settled on the most popular design.

The next step will be to seek funding to test the barrier’s stability – to ensure that it can withstand the impact of a falling two-year-old, for example, and to scale up the project in Nairobi. “Burns are one of the most painful injuries patients can endure and there is no good cure,” says Kasrai. “The best way to deal with them is to prevent them from happening in the first place.”

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