Jun 23, 2021
JERUSALEM WEATHER

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Israelis regard their children as precious, and the relatively high birth rate compared to that in Europe and the US is evidence of this, partly because Judaism set down a commandment to be fruitful and multiply and because of the loss of a third of the Jewish People in the Holocaust. 

But this love for children does not prevent unintentional accidents that kill an average of 116 Israeli children – the equivalent of four school classes – per year. Carelessness, inadequate supervision, lack of education and even being too busy with one’s cellphone are responsible for this horrendous toll. 

Twenty-five years ago, Dr. Michal Hemmo-Lotem was working as a specialist in the pediatrics department at the Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Petah Tikva (near Tel Aviv) when a toddler was rushed in by ambulance after having swallowed caustic soda. Shakra-Taha-Isa, who is now herself the mother of a baby, was put under anesthesia and ventilated and saved from death. The caustic soda – sodium hydroxide, also known as lye – is an inorganic compound that is highly corrosive and causes severe chemical burns. 

The Arab child nearly died after playing with and putting in her mou9th the chemical, which had been packaged like a piece of candy. “She was suspended between life and death. It made holes in her esophagus and reached her heart. I will never forget it.” Fortunately, Shakra was too young to remember the incident, but as it took five years for her to recover, it has not escaped her conscious memory.  

 

She was hospitalized at Schneider for a long time and then moved to Alyn Children’s Rehabilitation Hospital in Jerusalem for follow-up care. When she finally came home, her parents have given birth to two more children whom Shakra and never met. 

As a result of the incident, Hemmo-Lotem decided to establish, with Prof. Yehuda Danon who headed Schneider, an organization called Beterem (“Before” or Safe Kids-Israel) to educate the public about preventable accidents and lobby for legislation. Just recently, Beterem (https://www.beterem.org/?lang=en) – which is a member of the Safe Kids International – marked its first quarter-century with an hour-long online event that featured Danon, Hemmo-Lotem, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, Health Ministry director-general Prof. Hezy Levy and current leaders of Beterem. 

“I have a new baby now and am constantly watching her,” confessed Shakra. “I tell my husband and childminders to be careful. In a second, something can go wrong. Small children don’t understand the dangers. One has to think in advance what could happen and prevent it.”

Hemmo-Lotem remembered many other tragic accidents involving young children including a toddler who swallowed photographic film and a baby who drowned in a small amount of water. No organization was dealing with this problem, she recalled. 

Gradually, a small group of interested doctors and other medical staffers set up the organization, with Hemmo-Lotem as chief executive officer for years. Gradually, many others joined and Beterem became affiliated with Safe Kids.   “It takes a whole state to protect the children,” declared Hemmo-Lotem, who as a healthcare futurist and expert in medical innovation and management is now vice president for Innovation at Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer (near Tel Aviv).  

Accidental choking is the second most common cause of death in children. Babies and toddlers are especially susceptible to choking on such objects because they put everything in their mouths to become more familiar with it and don’t distinguish between food and other objects. In addition, their choke mechanism to prevent objects from going down the trachea is less developed than in older children and adults.

The most dangerous objects are small enough to fit into the clear plastic capsules that used to hold camera film. Coins, buttons, batteries, marbles, beads, toy parts (such as eyes on dolls) and other small objects – including small, hard pieces of food – should be kept out of young children’s reach. In addition, long antennas of radios and other electrical objects can be dangerous if poked into the eyes, ear or nose.

In Israel alone, more than 500 children per day are taken to hospital emergency rooms to be treated for accidents in or near the home or on the road. About a third of the cases are fatal.

Accidental deaths involving children here are often linked to certain Jewish holidays. Before Passover, parents are busy cleaning the house to remove leaven and in general do spring cleaning. As children are off from kindergarten and schools during the week before the holiday, some young children have been poisoned on cleaning products or drowned in pails with water. Before Succot (the Feast of Tabernacles), when parents are occupied building temporary booths, some children have been hurt and even died from nails, board and climbing ladders. 

During Hanukka, the festival of lights, some children have been hurt by burning candles, and during Purim, when children masquerade in costumes, some have suffered burns when flammable costumes burn. On Independence Day, spray foam can burn eyes, and cap pistols explode or cause damage to eyes and ears when children are unsupervised. 

Arab – and especially Beduin children in various parts of the country suffer more than the average Jewish child from unintentional harm, as parents have reversed their cars when not seeing their children playing on unpaved roads and run over them. Others fall from roofs or climb on electrical poles because of an inadequate number of playgrounds in many neighborhoods.

 

Hemmo-Lotem remembered many other tragic accidents involving young children including a toddler who swallowed photographic film and a baby who drowned in a small amount of water. No organization was dealing with this problem, she recalled. 

Gradually, a small group of interested doctors and other medical staffers set up the organization, with Hemmo-Lotem as chief executive officer for years. Gradually, many others joined and Beterem became affiliated with Safe Kids.   “It takes a whole state to protect the children,” declared Hemmo-Lotem, who as a healthcare futurist and expert in medical innovation and management is now vice president for Innovation at Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer (near Tel Aviv).  

In a typical accident some years ago, a nine-month-old girl in a Beduin family in the Negev died after swallowing a marble and choking on it. Every year, an average of nine children, six of them younger than their first birthday, die from asphyxiation due to a foreign object, and many others are rescued at the last minute.

Some years ago, Beterem and the Arab-Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation-Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development recruited Beduin grandmothers from a village southeast of Beersheba for professionally led training on how to prevent child accidents. 

Anat Levine, Beterem’s current chairman, said during the anniversary event that the organization’s educational work and lobbying for legislation such as requiring bicycle helmets, limited the temperature of hot water coming out of faucets, requiring air holes in marker pens (so that if swallowed, a child could still breathe) and other measures have led to a 50% decrease in accidental deaths of children in Israel. The lives of some 1,300 Israeli children of all ages and backgrounds have been directly saved due to Beterem’s activities over the years. 

The organization’s director-general for half of the 25 years, Orly Silbinger – who appears regularly in the media and professional conferences to get the word out – received an award from Levine along with Danon and Hemmo-Lotem. Silbinger noted that even though parents were generally with their children at home during the long months of closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, children continued to be harmed. 

The voluntary organization also produced a public-service message broadcast on TV that showed parents whose children died in accidents. They are not deterred from discussing their personal tragedies. “Never say that this could never happen to you,” they declared. Beterem, over its first 25 years, strongly agrees. 

 

 

 

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