In South Africa, research on burn mortality has emanated primarily from specialised burn centres and has focused on specific age groups and hospital-based fatalities. This study describes the demographic profile and the pathology of trauma related to burn fatalities as seen at the Pretoria Medico-Legal Laboratory (PTA MLL), a large urban medico-legal mortuary over a 5-year period from January 2011 to December 2015. Mortuary admission records and autopsy reports were used to gather information on demographics, circumstances of injury, apparent manner and cause of death, pathology of burns, toxicology and histology reports and identification of the decedents.
RESULTS : Of the 9558 unnatural deaths admitted to the PTA MLL during this time period, 291 (3.0%) of the fatalities met the inclusion criteria. The male:female ratio was 2.9:1. Most fatalities occurred between the ages of 0–4 years. One hundred and forty-two (142) decedents were charred beyond recognition. Identification was confirmed in 134 (94.4%) of the charred remains. In 208 (69.8%) of the cases the manner of death was deemed to be accidental, 23 (7.9%) were homicidal and 11 (3.8%) were suicides. Two hundred and fifty-five (87.4%) of the fatalities were as a result of open flames/fires. Shack fires were responsible for 105 (36%) of all fatalities. In 32 (11.0%) cases of open flame/fire fatalities where death occurred at the scene of injury, more than one fatality was reported per incident. In 122 (79.2%) of scene fatalities, soot deposition was noted in the upper and lower airways. Forty-five (32.8%) of hospital fatalities occurred within 24 h of admission. The most common complications in hospital fatalities were from the respiratory system. The mean blood alcohol concentrations (BAC) was 0.09 g/100 ml. The mean carboxyhaemoglobin concentrations (COHb) was 19.9%. All available cyanide results were negative.
CONCLUSION : The study is the first of its kind in South Africa to generate bimodal descriptive statistics for burn fatalities. Approximately 3% of unnatural deaths at the PTA-MLL were due to burns, occurring at a rate of ±1 death per week. The data provides a platform for funding, collaborative research, planning and development of public health programs.