Death by fire in India a big risk, especially for women

Cremation pyres near Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India. Nevil Zaveri, Flickr.

By Amy VanderZanden, special to Humanosphere

In the United States, when we think about fire, we might imagine a campfire or, in the summer, a forest fire.

We worry about house fires, and efforts to improve building codes and enhance fire safety to has translated into fire deaths in this country to fall to the  lowest point ever in the US with firefighters increasingly spending their time responding to non-fire calls.

In India, however, fire poses a much greater, more personal and gender-biased threat.

Adult women in India have the highest probability of death by fire of any country. They are nearly 10 times more likely to die this way than women in neighboring Pakistan, and over 50 times more likely to die from fire than women in China.

Probability of death from fire among 15- to 49-year-old females, 2013

India Fire Deaths 1

Source: Global Burden of Disease Study 2013. To explore the data visualization online, go to http://ihmeuw.org/33ng.

Globally, about 250,000 people a year die from fire, heat, and hot substances, and number that has held more or less steady over the last 15 years. In 2013, half of those deaths were in India – and more than two-thirds of those deaths were of women.

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There are occasionally news stories about India, where bride-burning, or dowry death, and a rite known as sati have all involved women – brides or widows – being burned to death. These practices have been banned for decades there, and Global Burden of Disease estimates show that fire deaths have declined since 1990 in India.

Because women do much of the household food preparation in countries like India, other possible explanations for higher risk of fire death involve greater exposure to open cooking fires or unsafe cookstoves, which can turn loose clothing into fuel. There is also simply a less-developed fire prevention and burn treatment infrastructure in India, where many victims live in rural regions.

Adjusting for population growth over the last two decades, female deaths from fire in India have declined by half since 1990 – from nearly 28 deaths per 100,000 women to 14 deaths per 100,000 in 2013. By contrast, in China there was less than one in 100,000 deaths from fire in 2013.

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The pace of decline in India has slowed in the last decade, however, and media outlets have reported an uptick in the number of female fire deaths since 2005.

According to the WHO, the economic and social impact of burns and fire deaths can be quite substantial, including expensive hospital care, social stigma to burn survivors, and trauma to family members. While the application of fire prevention strategies like those used in high-income countries might have an impact on lowering the toll of fire deaths in India, it seems like other, more complicated factors, might come into play here as well.

Amy VanderZandenAmy VanderZanden is a communications data specialist at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).

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