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Heba El-Sewedy: 100,000 burn victims in Egypt annually; it's time to do something

Ahram Online talks to one of Egypt's best known philanthropists as she launches a campaign to change how society deals with burns victims

Ingy Deif , Sunday 24 Apr 2016
Heba El Sewedy

A descendant of a famous and leading Egyptian dynasty in the industry of cables and electronics, Heba El-Sewedy is known to Egyptians for other reasons.

At the beginning of the 25 January Revolution, El-Sewedy took to the streets to see firsthand the needs of the injured who were falling by the dozen. Although she avoided the media and for years shunned publicity, she is widely credited for treating thousands of Egyptians. She was dubbed the "Mother of Egyptians."

Five years on, with Ahl Masr NGO founded, the "Humanity Burn Free" initiative is about to be launched as El-Sewedy moves to focus on a specific type of injury, largely stigmatised and seldom in the spotlight despite the agony it inflicts on victims: burns.

Your name was associated for years with discreetly volunteering to treat thousands of the injured after the 25 January 2011 uprising. What prompted you to do that?

After the first few days of the revolution, I felt – like others – that I must do something to help. We all witnessed youth injured brutally, so I started with some of my friends communicating with some of them, referring them to a group of doctors we personally know. Later it took a more organised form where many doctors collaborated with us to treat almost 4,000 persons, some of whom were sent abroad to complete their treatment.

What caused you to start focusing on burns?

In 2012, and after our credibility was established, we thought that it was time to start something more structured, so the idea of "Ahl Masr" (People of Egypt) was born.

This NGO obtained a permit from the government in March 2013, when it was officially launched. Then, in April 2014, the prime idea was to focus on those suffering from heart problems, eye injuries, and burns, especially children, because those were the most cases we encountered. Then we saw that in particular burns were overshadowed, despite the huge pain burn injuries inflict and the numbers in which they occur.

Tell us more about the actual numbers of burns in Egypt.

It is a global problem, even in developed countries. Worldwide, burns are the ninth cause of fatalities. Still, in Egypt, the problem is on a much bigger scale.

The only statistic in Egypt is from 2012 when a group of doctors reported that almost 37 percent of burn victims die in the first six hours after the incident. It is amazing that burns victims rarely get attention, although their numbers far surpass those of road accidents.

Road accidents in Egypt are registered at around 15,000 every year, where according to data provided by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF, the number of burn victims every year in Egypt ranges between 80,000 and 100,000. This means that almost 250 to 300 Egyptian experience this trauma every day.

Of those whopping numbers of burn victims, almost 17 percent suffer a permanent form of handicap. Some 50 percent are under the age of 20, and 25 percent are under the tender age of nine. It was time to do something about that.

So the new hospital for burns victims is the prime focus of the initiative?

Yes, but the project we are about to launch consists of many sub-projects.

First, there is the hospital, which we will inaugurate in May. It will comprise 60 beds and a total of 20 ICUs (intensive care units), which are of utmost importance in cases of burns.

The hospital will follow conventional medicine in addition to unorthodox methods. Alternative medicine will be introduced. We are already cooperating with Malaysia in that regard, and a unit for healing with music will be launched.

Psychological care will be an integral part of the healing process, with psychological rehabilitation provided not only to patients and their families, but also to doctors and nurses who experience great stress after exposure to the traumas of the injured.

Secondly, there are campaigns on prevention and awareness already underway in schools, universities, and companies through corporate social responsibility programmes.

The third focus is the "Safe Village" initiative where we target the villages in Egypt where most burn incidents occur – mainly in the governorate of Beni Suef. There we will introduce a model where roofs are fire proofed, extinguishers are provided to each house, campaigns are introduced in all sectors, etc. We will recruit from within villages to ensure the continuity and sustainability of these endeavours.

Finally, there is the "Humanity Burn Free" initiative. Although it will be an initiative launched from Egypt, we are hopeful to see it acknowledged in the future all over the world.

How will a project of that magnitude be financed?

From the very beginning, we put together a five-year plan to be self-sustainable with regards to finance and without being dependant on donations. Many projects will contribute to this, one of which is the first "Skin Bank" to be inaugurated in the country.

And after treatment, where does the link with patients end?

We aim not only to provide treatment to the injured and raise awareness about protection and prevention, but also to change the perception of people towards the issue of burn victims and how to deal with them in society, in addition to providing those afflicted by burns with true opportunities through which they can establish themselves and reach their full potential.

In our hospitals, sections will be provided for children to continue their studies as they undergo treatment and rehabilitation, and for older ones, scholarships to attend prestigious colleges, whether in Egypt or outside, is one of our main foci.

Stigma or fear has to be combated in that regard.

When art initiatives like graffiti exhibitions and the Egyptian movie 'Asmaa' were introduced, to counter misconceptions and remove stigma, positive impact was observed regarding how society deals with people living with HIV/AIDS. Can something similar be applicable in the case of burns?

This is definitely on the agenda. Media and art are always powerful tools. What we are about to do is first to produce a feature or a small documentary that would go viral and spread awareness. Social media is vital in reaching people right, but definitely bigger projects will follow.

What do you hope for the country in the upcoming years?

Where to begin? What I hope is that more justice prevails and that the gap between the rich and the poor in Egypt diminishes.

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