Dr Sue Williams began the new year by removing a six-year-old’s eye that had been irreparably damaged by a firecracker explosion.
Williams is a registrar at St Johns, the specialist eye unit attached to Soweto’s Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital. Her patient’s eye was so “disorganised” that the iris, retina and the clear vitreous humour were virtually indistinguishable. She was able to repair the cornea but was forced to remove the eye after finding it impossible to repair the deeper parts of the wound.
On New Year’s Day doctors at St Johns saw 18 patients, most of them under 15 years of age. The majority had suffered burns caused not by the heat of exploding fireworks, but by the highly alkaline chemical potassium nitrate that forms an average 75% of the explosive compound. Five of those patients are likely to lose most of their vision in one eye.
Fireworks are regulated by the Explosives Act, which prohibits their sale to persons under the age of 16 and demands that all dealers be licensed by the chief inspector of explosives. However, the inspectorate does not appear to have sufficient staff even to answer its phones. The penalties prescribed by the Act are, for the most part, inconsequential and regulations prohibiting the use of fireworks in public places are not enforced by police.
The strictness of local regulations varies wildly from municipality to municipality. Kimberley, for example, is particularly strict in enforcing a ban on private usage, with heavy fines for offenders. Police and traffic police are required to enforce regulations, but appear to be far from energetic in doing so.
Ndumisane Sokhela is a nine-year-old from Zola, Soweto, who went out with neighbours to bring in the new year. “I was playing with my friends when we lit a bomb firework, which exploded in front of my face,” says Ndumisane. “It’s painful. I cannot [see to read] clearly.” The boy’s mother (who did not want her name mentioned) says she did not buy her son any fireworks; that he obtained them elsewhere. She considers herself fortunate that he did not lose an eye like other children at the hospital.
Wilderness Maseko (25) is from Naledi Extension 2. She was standing in her yard when revellers threw a firework towards her. It exploded in her face and her eye literally fell out. She was rushed to hospital, but lost the eye. She is hoping that witnesses may be able to identify the person who threw the firework. “The shops that sell these fireworks should be closed down,” says Maseko.
Seven-year-old Letlhogonolo Tsobeine lit a “shooter” firework, but it didn’t go off. When he went to check on it, it exploded in his face, injuring his eye. Letlhogonolo’s mother (who also did not want to be named) said she bought the fireworks in Johannesburg. She said the pack carried a written warning, but she could not give details.
Dr Tsego Segoati, who treated Maseko, says that in some of the cases she treated at the beginning of 2000 the cornea almost seemed to have “melted away”. This year, fortunately, she has seen no injuries quite like that. Her opinion of firecrackers: “I hate them. It’s very young girls and boys who get their eyes damaged … It wouldn’t do any harm if they were banned.”
“The last four years has seen an increase of eye injuries caused by fireworks,” says St Johns’s Dr Lewis Levitz. “There should be edu-cational programmes on how to use fireworks, and they should be used under supervision.”
A staff member at King Edward hospital, who preferred to remain unnamed, said the Durban hospital had also admitted many children with eye injuries caused by fireworks. Again, those injured are mainly children and young people.
Last year a branch of Toys R Us was prosecuted for selling fireworks to an 11-year-old. The chain has since thrown its weight behind the NSPCA’s worthy campaign against fireworks. Children could profit as much the nation’s pets from similar efforts on their behalf.