There is a no greater tragedy than when a parent buries his or her child; it’s against the natural course of things. When this results from incurable disease, it is agonizing. But when the death results from unintentional – and preventable – accidents, the tragedy is absolutely heart rending and the cause of great guilt for the rest of the parent’s life, even if not present at the scene of the accident.
Each year, almost a million babies, toddlers, children and teens living around the globe die from unintentional injuries, including road injuries, poisonings, falls, fire, exposure to heat and hot substances, drowning and exposure to the forces of nature. In addition, tens of millions of children each year are injured or disabled and may go on to suffer emotional and physical consequences for life.
Just bemoaning the fact is not enough. Adults, and children themselves, must be taught what can be dangerous and how to prevent accidents.
Children often don’t know what is risky. One study presented pictures of witches and other scary characters to young children along with photos of a bucket of water, a candle and other real objects. All of the kids said the frightening fictional characters were more dangerous.
Injuries account for 6% of total deaths among children up to the age of five years and are a threat to health in every country of the world. Yet awareness of the problem and its preventability – as well as political commitment by many governments and local authorities to act to prevent child injury – remains unacceptably low.
Fortunately, there is a variety of voluntary, non-government organizations around the world working on a national, regional and local basis that are dedicated to improving children’s safety by awareness and pushing the authorities to take action – passing laws, enforcing them and educating adults. One such organization is Safe Kids Worldwide, a non-profit organization working to help families and communities keep kids safe.
In addition to drowning, falling, poisoning, fire and other obvious dangers, there are numerous less-known causes of unintentional accidents. The leading cause of death for children who have not yet reached their first birthday is suffocation, often taking place during the sleeping hours. Sudden infant death syndrome results from being put to sleep on their stomach instead of the back, parents’ smoking, too-hot temperatures in their room, being bundled in too-heavy clothing or having a too-soft mattress. Even attractive bumper pads tied to the inside of cribs can mold themselves around babies faces or get them caught and suffocate them.
Car crashes are the second leading cause of death for children under one and a leading cause of death from ages one to 18. Cars also pose plenty of risks even if they’re just parked in one place, as adults sometimes forget their children in cars that heat up in the sun.
The growing phenomenon of electric bicycles is causing many deaths and injuries in children in adults. Many children don’t wear helmets and other protective gear or know traffic rules. There are also the older forms of wheeled child transport, such as skateboards, scooters and skates, which are especially dangerous when using streets rather than sidewalks or parks. Always cross streets where you can see what’s coming.
Water time can be fun, but it can turn dangerous in seconds; a baby or toddler can drown in just a few centimeters of water in a bathtub or even in a pail. Never leave a young child at even a small distance or for a moment alone at the beach or in the bath or pool. Playgrounds are for having a good time, but when not supervised closely by a responsible adult or teen, serious injuries or death can result.
Used toys and baby equipment may have broken or missing parts, or may not meet current safety regulations. Bath seats and rings help a baby sit up in the tub, but they can be a drowning hazard if you leave babies alone for even a few seconds. Some bath and baby oils contain liquid hydrocarbons, which can cause a serious pneumonia-like condition, irreversible lung damage, and even death if a child aspirates the substance into their lungs.
Medications left by parents or grandparents on shelves or in drawers can poison children who think the pills are candy. Latex balloons are among the worst things to choke on because they can conform to a child’s throat and completely block breathing. Even plastic caps for pens can get stuck in the trachea and cause choking.
Children fall from high chairs unless they are belted in. An improperly installed stove, TV set or bookcase can fall forward if your child lean or climbs on it. Even the family dog can be dangerous. In the US alone, about 100,000 children under age 10 are treated in hospital emergency rooms every year for dog-bite-related injuries.
In European Union countries, the European Child Safety Alliance was launched in 2000 with the aim of making of children living in the region safer. TACTICS is the acronym of its large scale, multi-year initiative working to provide better information, practical tools and resources to support adoption and implementation of evidence-based good practices for the prevention of injury to children and youth.
It collaborates with academic institutions, NGOs and other partners in over 30 countries, including Israel. Its former director, Dr. Joanne Vincenten, has just visited Israel to help promote and advise government authorities and voluntary organizations on its Child Safety Action Plan, which is now about to begin implementation. She has been involved in child safety for the last quarter-century.
Now a lecturer at Maastrict University in Holland and a strategic adviser on child safety to the United Nations, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other organizations, Vincenten was born in the prairies in central Canada, a wide-open space where children were often injured.
A conference held in Jerusalem that she attended heard from a mother of four from Holon south of Tel Aviv. Four years ago, Hagit retold, she and her family had moved into a new home that had an outdoor swimming pool. They carefully covered the pool when not being used with a heavy cover stretched across the water.
But when they were not looking for only seconds, their year-old baby crawled onto the cover and drowned in a puddle. The boy, named Itamar, is still alive at the age of five, but in a completely vegetative state and cared for at home. “We lost him in a second. We are always the best of parents, but such an accident can happen to anyone,” she told the audience as she broke into tears. “How could you have persuaded me that it’s possible to prevent this catastrophe. Make parents aware that it can happen to them.”
Israel, that Vincenten has visited several times, is in the low middle of the list of EU countries on child safety. It is ranked 22nd out of 35 nations for child injury mortality rates. Health Ministry associate director-general Prof. Itamar Grotto told the audience that his ministry – which is responsible for leading and coordinating the work of five ministries and other bodies – is committed to carry out the Israeli plan. A five-year budget has been allocated to help.
The countries with the lowest rates at the top of the list are Iceland, Sweden, Norway and Italy, while Turkey, the US and Mexico are the worst.
“Although death rates here have been declining in recent years, Israel has plenty of room for improvement. You have 1,65 million children up to the age of 17, and child accidents are especially frequent in large families of Bedouin, Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews, said the Dutch/Canadian expert.
The rates have been brought down in EU countries encouraging rear-facing child seats for babies; sturdy car seats and boosters for toddlers and young children; personal flotation devices for bathing, installation of window bars on upper-story windows; barrier fencing around pools and child-resistant packaging for chemicals and medications.
In the short run, interventions to reduce child accidents cost money, but in the long run, they save money because of reduced hospital and rehabilitation costs.
Some countries, like Sweden, have had very active national child safety action plans for decades. Finland has had a national plan since 2009, and since then, they have declared 210 safety measures, 103 of them implemented, 65 at early stage and 22 shown to be not feasible.
Others, like Austria, has only a regional strategy in one province. Vincenten even went to the United Arab Emirates capital of Abu Dhabi to advise on a regional plan just started last year.
“If you raise awareness, it can lead to some behavioral change. If you tell your kid they will get punished for doing something dangerous or wrong, they are more likely to change behavior, Education is not enough. You to change design so people don’t have to think about it,” stressed Vincenten.
Orly Silbinger, head of Safe Kids Israel (Beterem, the Israel Center for Child Safety and Health), said that it has taken a decade to get the plan ready for implementation because accident prevention involves 15 ministries and agencies. It will take three years, she said, until we really see major progress. Successful initiatives in other countries had to be adapted, as the nature and prevalence of accidents in its high-risk communities are different than abroad. Her organization has 27 employees covering the whole country and an active website that gives advice and fields questions.
With needless deaths and injuries from terror from Gaza currently affecting Israel’s children, one hopes that those we inflict on ourselves through carelessness and lack of knowledge will be reduced.