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Open Access Research article

Demographic and circumstantial accounts of burn mortality in Cape Town, South Africa, 2001-2004: An observational register based study

A Van Niekerk1*, R Laubscher2 and L Laflamme3

Author Affiliations

1 Crime, Violence and Injury Lead Programme, Medical Research Council-University of South Africa, Cape Town, South Africa

2 Biostatistics Unit, Medical Research Council, Cape Town, South Africa

3 Karolinska Institutet, Department of Public Health Sciences, Division of International Health, Stockholm, Sweden

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BMC Public Health 2009, 9:374  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-9-374

Published: 6 October 2009

Abstract

Background

Burns are a persisting public health problem in low- and middle-income countries; however, epidemiologic data for these settings is scarce. South Africa is no exception although there is an emerging knowledge base, especially for paediatric burns. The current study describes the epidemiology of burn mortality across the lifespan in Cape Town (2.9 million inhabitants in 2001), one of the six South African metropolitan centres.

Methods

The distribution of burn mortality across socio-demographic groups and also their circumstances of occurrence were investigated using four year (2001 to 2004) surveillance data from the National Injury Mortality Surveillance System (n = 1024 cases).

Results

Burn mortality occurred at a rate of 7.9 per 100 000 person-years (95% CI: 7.3-8.3). Males sustained fatal rates 2.2 times more than that for females (p < 0.001), with rates significantly higher in the 25 to 38 and 39 to 50 age groups than at other ages (p < 0.001). The greatest difference between male and female deaths was observed in the 25 to 38 year age group, when almost three male deaths occurred for every female one. The vast majority of fatal burns were registered as accidental and occurred in the home, either over the cold and wet months or during recreational periods over weekends and across the year. Alcohol intoxication was reported for the majority of those adults whose alcohol blood levels were tested (i.e. 52.6% of cases aged 16+ years).

Conclusion

Besides paediatric burns, the high prevalence and circumstances of occurrence of burns among middle age men are a source of concern. There are reasons to believe that this over-representation is a reflection of detrimental living conditions, life-style and poor socio-economic status. It is recommended that there be greater prioritisation of prevention activities that involve the control or management of kerosene heat sources, the provision of alternatives to flammable housing materials, and the implementation of strategies to reduce harmful drinking practices.