Guinea: the scourge of caustic soda

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Every year, between 100 and 300 children in Guinea become the victims of an unintended ingestion of caustic soda. Without suitable treatment, such an accident can lead to death. Terre des hommes (Tdh), through its programme of specialized healthcare, supports the treatment of these children in their own country whenever possible, and transfers the most serious cases to Europe. However, the best remedy is always prevention. This is why our Foundation and its local partners are setting up an awareness campaign to alert the public to the risks associated with this dangerous substance.

In Guinea, income-generating activities in households sometimes involve the use of highly dangerous toxic products – without any safety precautions. In this way, the traditional production of soaps, detergents, weedkillers and other dyes has multiplied in poor and disadvantaged homes, without being accompanied by any essential safety measures that could ensure avoidance of the accidental absorption of chemical products by children. Despite this, many children live in and around places for the storing and utilizing of caustic soda and its derivatives.

The consequences of absorbing this highly corrosive substance are dramatic for a child: massive lesions on the mouth, lips and tongue; internal lesions of the oesophagus can eventually turn into partial or total stenosis. The child is then unable to drink and eat normally. He/she ends up suffering from severe acute malnutrition that is fatal in the medium or long term (from a few weeks up to five years after ingestion).

A long process towards recovery

The treatment of children with such internal lesions is extremely difficult. Special treatment to dilate the oesophagus should be undertaken directly after the accident to avoid stenosis. The process of healing lasts from eight to ten months and requires close attention. However, the consequences of these accidents, caused by a lack of safety measures, are also aggravated by the lack of material and human resources available in the Guinean health system, not to mention the fact that there are few families able to bear the cost of treating lesions of the oesophagus.

Tackling the root causes

During the past five years, the Specialized Care project has provided for the medical evacuation to Europe of some dozen Guinean children suffering from total stenosis of the oesophagus. Tdh’s priority is, however, not only bringing over the most desperate cases for treatment. It now also consists of looking after the injured children before evacuation becomes their sole chance of survival. For this, in close collaboration with the authorities from the health system and the Ignace Deen Hospital in Conakry, the project will be active in strengthening the skills of the health structures for identification, referral and the quality of treatment. It will also endeavour to improve the patients’ monitoring and to support their families more effectively. Finally, a campaign for information and awareness-heightening in the media and the most exposed communities will complete this overall strategy. It will also aim at reducing the accident risks for children in order to prevent total or partial caustic stenosis of the oesophagus, which at present remains incurable in Guinea.

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