Interview: Heba El-Sewedy discusses challenges of burn victims, supporting society in the time of Corona

Injy Deif , Sunday 12 Apr 2020

Ahram Online talks to one of the best known Egyptians in the field of philanthropy about reaching out to burn victims, as well as society in the time of Coronavirus

Heba El Sewedy
Heba El Sewedy recalls the launch of the idea of focusing on treating victims of burns, when she was approached by the wounded reaching out for help at the time of 2011 revolution.
The headquarters of Ahl Masr NGO in Cairo's 5th Settlement district might not be bustling with the same energy as in regular times. Still, the work goes on.
The walls are adorned with photos of the beaming smiles of people living with burns, setting a cheerful vibe to the place.
Ahram Online talked to the founder of this unique entity, Heba El-Sewedy, about the NGO she founded and the "Humanity Burn Free" initiative she launched, and endeavours underway to help society in the time of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The birth of an idea
El-Sewedy recalls the launch of the idea of focusing on treating burn victims when she was approached by the wounded reaching out for help at the time of 2011 revolution.
In the midst of what was happening, many came forward with cases of burns, particularly among children, which drew attention to often overshadowed suffering.
"I remember a baby girl who was only weeks old, and who was burnt after her mother left a candle accidentally near her crib at the time of the traditional suboo ceremony — usually held by Egyptians on the seventh day after birth to celebrate newborns. By the time we found a place to treat the girl she had already passed away.
"Another incident followed. A father came with two of his sons severely burned after they had played with hot coal. By the time we admitted them to the hospital, they were in a horrible condition. They died on the day after admittance.
"We knew that for every 1,000 Egyptian patients there was only one spot in intensive care, and burns are like no other hazard; they cannot to be dealt via waiting lists. It was time to do something about it,” El-Sewedy says.
In 2012, she saw it was time to start something more structured, so the idea of Ahl Masr (People of Egypt) was born. The NGO gained a license from the government in March 2013, and was officially launched. In April 2014, direct work with the inflicted commenced.
Alarming numbers 
The problem is global, even in developed countries. Worldwide, burns are the ninth cause of fatalities. Still, in Egypt, the problem is of a much bigger scale.
El-Sewedy sheds light on the alarming statistics in the country. "In Egypt, there are 250,000 cases of burns every year, 37 percent of whom die in the first six hours after the incident if they are not given proper treatment.
"According to data we have, the number of deaths due to burns every year in Egypt reaches 180,000 (almost 60 percent of the total number of burn victims).
“Unfortunately, 50 percent of victims are children, 18 percent end up with a form of handicap, and 99 percent of kids suffering burns are deprived of being educated at schools," she adds.
El-Sewedy says that currently Ahl Masr is treating 4,000 burn cases, each requiring numerous operations, sometimes reaching up to 15 or even 30 medical procedures.
Flagship project
Although the construction of a burns hospital is at the forefront of priorities of the NGO, many sub-projects are simultaneously taking place to raise awareness and bring society on board. 
"First, there are the campaigns of prevention and awareness already underway in schools, universities, and companies through their corporate social responsibility programmes. We have collaborated with famous Egyptian chefs to talk about burns on their show, as 70 percent of accidents occur in the kitchen,” El-Sewedy says.
Setting misconceptions straight is part of the awareness campaign as well.
"We have also been trying to alter the misconception that treating burns is a form of cosmetic surgery. We explain that there are organ reconstruction processes, limb provision, treatment of damage occurring to the eyes, as well as psychological help extended to both victims as well as their families and loved ones.
"We have been shedding light on the fact that not all burns are from accidents, but that a large portion are crimes based on revenge, hatred or jealousy. We address these issues in society candidly.
"There are also efforts made by doctors through the NGO to present patients with state of the art treatments, as well as research conducted to gather statistics from all over the country and understand the root causes that are specific to various areas.
"Then there 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 introduced a model, where roofs were installed that are resistant to fire, extinguishers provided to each house and locals taught how to use them, and campaigns introduced to teach people about evacuation plans in case of fire and the principles of First Aid, all while recruiting from inside the community to ensure continuity and the sustainability of these endeavours," El-Sewedy explains.
El Sewedy says that the results were outstanding, with villages reporting zero fire incidents after having suffered dozens previously each year. 
"Finally there is the "Humanity Burn Free” initiative, and the hospital we inaugurated in 2018. Psychological care will be an integral part of the building, with psychological rehabilitation provided not only to patients and their families, but also to doctors and nurses who are greatly affected after exposure to the traumas of those injured," El-Sewedy said.
Helping in the times of Corona
“We know many will be concerned about how coronavirus (Covid-19) might affect the work of the foundation, but we want to do everything we can to help people weather the storm,” El-Sewedy says. 
“Ahl Misr Foundation is keen on being supportive to the medical sector and in exerting constant efforts to support the health system during the exceptional circumstances the country is going through,” she added.
El-Sewedy underlined that the foundation has prepared more than 10 rooms for intensive care and 30 devices for artificial respiration in many hospitals in Cairo, Giza, Upper Egypt and the Delta. 
The Foundation has also provided more than 500,000 different medical and protective supplies and equipment, such as body wraps, protective clothing and face masks to protect medical teams from infection.
Moreover, the foundation signed a joint protocol with the Ministry of Health to turn three buildings affiliated with the foundation into quarantine wards and medical facilities, encompassing 500 beds. The first building will be ready for use in the coming week.
A happy place
El-Sewedy boasts that the NGO is run by youth who are trained to work with passion and remain sensitive to the feelings of burn victims.
"We were dubbed the 'Youth NGO' by former Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Waly. Dozens of young staff members are trained not to see the external features of victims, but rather to look at the soul.
"We take pleasure in entertaining people living with burns through events and birthday parties that we organise, and we host school and university students who come on board and help victims have a splendid time, as well as many celebrities who visit, among whom is actor Ahmed Fahmy, who is a frequent volunteer.
Great expectations
Speaking of hope, El-Sewedy described what she aspires to see in the future in how society deals with burn victims.
"I hope the stigma associated with burns will dissipate, and that people with understand that burns are the third cause of fatalities in Egypt, and become ready to face the magnitude of the problem. Unfortunately, until now, the issue is surrounded with fear and denial. It is just too painful for people to face and see, but this must change."
El-Sewedy calls for the government to dedicate more attention to the cause and reach out to people living with burns so they can be fully integrated in the workforce as fully capable citizens, as well as to extend help to children with burns to complete their education and stay enrolled in schools.
"Finally, I hope that in cooperation with the UN, Egypt would be the birthplace of dedicating a particular day to those living with burns. I hope to see a World Day for "Humanity Burn Free", where we shed light on challenges and pave way for a better life for victims," she concluded.
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