Africa has the highest rate of fatal child poisoning in the world. Poisoning is one of the easiest accidents to prevent and it’s a sad indictment on us that it remains so common.
Frequent poisonings among children in Zimbabwe include paraffin, cleaning products (e.g bleach), rat and insect poisons, medications, toxic plants and traditional medicines.
This article will discuss methods to prevent accidental poisoning and what to do if poisoning is suspected.
Important actions to prevent childhood poisoning include keeping toxic substances out of the way of children and keeping the poisons in appropriate containers.
Many people keep their cooking paraffin in water or soft drink bottles, where it is mistaken for drinking water by thirsty children. It’s an obvious mistake after the fact, but continues to be made day after day.
All poisons — paraffin, toxic cleaning products or gardening products — should be kept in clearly marked, secured containers, labelled “POISON” and kept out of reach of children.
Poisons and food should never be stored together. Street vendors are selling a brown granular cockroach poison that looks very much like brown sugar. It is not sold in any special packaging and is regularly mistakenly added to food and drinks with disastrous consequences.
If poison is laid down in the house, it needs to be put in places that are not accessible to children and pets. Children should stay away from adults applying pesticides to plants as even small amounts of inhaled poison can affect a child. This is a relatively common occurrence in Zimbabwe.
Needless to say medication needs to be kept out of reach of children — ideally in child resistant containers (NB: there’s no such thing as child proof!). Parents often diligently observe this rule at home, but children get poisoned when they visit the grandparent’s home when they find Gogo’s pills next to her bed looking like a pot of brightly coloured smarties! Equally, visitors to the house may have pills in their bags and these too need to be kept out of reach of children.
Special mention must be made of button batteries. A rarity a decade ago, ingestion of button batteries is becoming a major global problem. Unfortunately they are very damaging to the lining of the gut and rapidly cause perforation of the gut, which will lead to death, unless quickly recognised and addressed.
Button batteries are ubiquitous in the modern home. It is said that cheap sub-standard toys are particularly dangerous, as the toys easily break and the batteries come out, leading to their ingestion. Frequently this goes unnoticed and only comes to light days later when the child is critically ill and has an X-ray or operation.
If you suspect that a child has been poisoned, it is important to get them to expert help as rapidly as possible. If poison is visible in or around the mouth, then remove it. It is not advisable to induce vomiting at home as this can be dangerous (especially with paraffin). If possible, it is helpful to take the container of the poison and also an estimate of how much has been ingested and when.
If the child’s clothing is contaminated, then remove it and wash the child as soon as possible as many poisons can be absorbed through the skin.
Finally, it is important to remember that the most important intervention to prevent childhood poisonings is to keep poisons in appropriate containers out of reach of children.
The vast majority of childhood poisonings in Zimbabwe could be avoided if this rule was followed.