School children at risk

About three decades ago, a Sunday School fun train ride from Limbe to Liwonde ended prematurely when a child on the tour drowned in an abandoned swimming pool at Liwonde National Park.

One of the women in charge of the children at the time, who were aged 17 at the time, gives a minute-by-minute account of the trip that ended shortly after arrival in the postcard wildlife sanctuary.

June: First aid is important

“We had just arrived, one of the boys drowned. We did not know what to do. Everyone was crying,” she says.

Now 40, the early childhood development campaigner is convinced that knowing the risks in the surrounding would have saved the situation.

According to St John Ambulance Malawi training officer Fred Demister, lack of knowledge of hazards surrounding children at play can lead to injuries or loss of life. The organisation provides quarterly lifesaver training for teachers and caregivers.

“The school environment and education-related activities pose numerous risks to children. This is why teachers should know what to do when emergencies arise,” he says.

Emergencies in Malawian schools are not uncommon.

In January, a makeshift classroom at M’buka Primary School in Lilongwe collapsed. Eleven learners who sustained injuries of varying severity. This happened seven months after similarly falling classroom walls killed four pupils at Natchengwa Primary School in Zomba in July 2017.

In February, pupils at St Martin’s Primary School in Malindi, Mangochi also survived the weight of a falling branch of a massive tree which wrecked their classroom while lessons were in session.

These are just a few examples of the emergencies which shock parents who send pupils to school to learn, not to die like entrapped rats.

Unfortunately, the risks are not confined to primary schools. Even community-based childcare centres (CBCCs) encounter tear-provoking emergencies.

Interestingly, Emmanuel International education coordinator Maxwell Muhiwa knows that accidents occur when teachers and parents least expect. The non-governmental organisation is supporting 1 350 children in 18 CBCCs in Zomba.

“Accidents can occur when playing with metal swings, see saws and other materials. Children can also choke during meal times,” he says.

St. John’s Ambulance head of training Thomas Kaiya says some emergencies occur when children eat stuff they are not supposed to eat.

“Children in nursery and primary schools like sharing. This leads to children eating some food which they are allergic to and it leads to illness,” he says.

Children, being active and playful, easily get injured as they take part in school-related activities.

“About 80 percent of the injuries in children occur because children are active. Other common injuries are nose-bleeding and choking,” he says.

Demister says the risks also happen beyond the campus.

“Educational trips also pose a risk for children,” he says, recommending proper planning on ratio of caregivers to children during such trips.

Two years ago, research the Link for Citizen Empowerment and Development conducted in seven districts showed that most childcare institutions lack first-aid kits and requisite capacity to handle health hazards faced by learners. The study covered Mzimba, Nkhata Bay, Lilongwe, Mchinji, Dedza, Mangochi, Zomba and Blantyre.

“Little or no attention is given to sick children. Some childcare institutions mostly give painkillers while other childcare institutions let children escort one another to hospital without caregivers,” reads the findings in part.

The researchers report that up to 20 percent of children in childcare institutions are exposed to unhealthy and hazardous situations.

For Kaiya, training teachers and caregivers in emergency drills can lessen the risks.

He says: “We will be organising training every quarter to increase the number of teachers and caregivers with first aid knowledge. It’s important for teachers to know when to call parents or take a child to hospital when emergencies arise.

“When accidents occur, people just lift the patient and take them to the hospital. This is no right.”

Bevlyn June, who has been a teacher for 23 years, is accustomed to child-related accidents. This made her yearn for the training in special care for children.

“First aid knowledge is important even in the community where scores of children roam,” she says.

The country has about 35 000 caregivers, Half of them lack formal training, reports the Ministry of Gender, Children Disability and Social Welfare.

The former Sunday school leader, who found herself helpless when a child drowned, wishes everyone entrusted with children knew first aid.

“There are many accidents that are aggravated by lack of first aid skills,” she says.

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