As South Africans face the threat of more load shedding, a first-of-a-kind study has revealed the cost that planned blackouts are having on the health of children.
The research - to appear in the latest issue of the public health journal Epidemiology - examined the admissions of children at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Cape Town and found that during load shedding, paediatric admissions increased 10%.
The researchers, Christian Gehringer, Heinz Rode and Michael Schomaker, compared the number of admissions on the day of a load shedding and 48 hours after it to non-event days.
They further discovered that the admission increase linked to load shedding was more pronounced on weekdays. The study highlighted two incidents where children suffered burns because of load shedding.
“In one of the cases a little boy was brushing his teeth when he was burnt by a candle. The wound became infected and his parents took him to hospital a day later,” said Gehringer.
The other admission was for a child who was injured when he stepped into a pan containing hot fat. The pan had been placed near an outdoor fire because the family couldn't use the electric stove. Both incidents happened at night.
Gehringer decided to initiate the study while working at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital. He said that doctors working in the burns unit had noticed admissions related to load shedding.
Rode, who works at the hospital, said that load shedding had contributed to the admission of children, not only to the burns unit but to other trauma units as well.
Completing the study presented a number of challenges. Eskom, according to the researchers, would not provide information as to the days when load shedding happened. They had to find an alternative method of establishing this.
They turned to social media and were able to obtain data from the City of Cape Town. The researchers examined the 2014-15 period.
Schomaker explained that the increase in admissions during load shedding in the week had to do with people finding it difficult to plan around the blackouts because of long commutes and work commitments.
The inability to plan properly led to more accidents. The study comes as Eskom warns of possible load shedding in the coming weeks because of striking workers. “The chances of load shedding this weekend are, however, low,” said Eskom spokesperson Dikatso Mothae.
The authors concluded in their study that: “The association we measured is consistent with our hypothesis that failures of the power infrastructure increased risk to the children's health.”
Gehringer believed that this was the tip of the iceberg.
DA spokesperson on health in Gauteng Jack Bloom said the study showed that load shedding was damaging more than just the economy.
“Ten percent is pretty high, and this is showing the health cost to load shedding, and this what we are probably seeing across the country,” he said.
There have been media reports of children’s deaths possibly caused by load shedding. In 2014, Natasha Marits blamed load shedding and a faulty generator for the death of her premature baby boy in Kimberley Hospital. But the authors said that more research was needed to get a clearer picture of the health effects.