A leading medical journal,The Lancet, published a paper earlier this week, which reveals the high burden of fire-related deaths in India. While the report is a damning indictment of fire-related deaths for young women—who are three times as susceptible as their male peers—it also indicates the glaring inaccuracies in mortality-related surveillance in India.
The numbers alone are a cause for worry. Fire-related deaths account for around a quarter of all deaths for women in urban areas between 15 and 34. And in rural settings, the figure is well above 10%. While public health scholars have long documented gender discrimination, these new figures, if correct, are some of the most glaring in recent memory.
The researchers at Harvard, Cambridge and Johns Hopkins Universities estimate 163,000 fire-related deaths in 2001, which is a whopping six times that reported by the police.
The implications of such a figure are staggering. There were about 117,100 maternal deaths in India in 2005, making it the focus of international aid related to maternal health; indeed, the United Nations named maternal health a Millennium Development Goal. But, as The Lancet authors note, “Our estimate of fire-related deaths is almost 50% higher than this number (of maternal deaths), and among women alone the estimates are comparable.”
While the authors note that it is difficult to determine the specific causes of deaths, previous studies—as they note—have identified three major clusters of explanations: kitchen-related accidents, self-immolation caused by poverty or domestic violence, and homicides related —in some capacity—to domestic violence. It is difficult to evaluate what can be done from here. These gendered fire-related deaths are inextricably linked to complicated socio-economic processes and cannot be solved with a simple quick fix.
But to start, an efficient, accurate and third-party injury surveillance system for India is necessary. It’s a shame that foreign-based academics are the ones reporting these numbers. And as they note, many in the police force are linked to lax registration of reports or accept routine bribes from families to avoid investigation. Police reporting cannot be trusted, and a third-party agency, which compiles all official interactions with hospitals or funeral homes, for example, is imperative.
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