If you are like us, you probably do not think twice about going into your kitchen and turning a few knobs to prepare a meal for yourself and your family on an electric or gas range. But for three billion people, the simple act of cooking results in four million premature deaths every year due to smoke exposure, and is responsible for many of the 200,000 deaths occurring each year from severe burns.
This risk became a terrible reality one evening for Miss Poly, a young woman in Bangladesh who lived in a small hut off a narrow alleyway in the slums of Dhaka. Pregnant and busy preparing dinner for her husband, who was a rickshaw puller, Miss Poly was cooking as she did every day when suddenly her kerosene cook stove exploded, engulfing her in flames.
She and her unborn child survived the accident, and she was later able to give birth to a baby girl. But she was severely burned on her hands and upper body, and her burn injuries left her bedridden. She was unable to pick up her newborn child or tend to her home and family.
Sadly, Miss Poly's case is not an isolated one. Every three seconds, someone in a developing country is severely burned -- more than 10 million people each year. In Bangladesh, burns from fires kill more women than road injuries and are the 11 leading cause of death for girls ages 5-14.
ReSurge International has been providing reconstructive surgery for people living in poverty since 1969, and around 70 percent of burn injuries it treats around the world are caused by open fires or stoves used for cooking.
Over the years, ReSurge has seen far too many women with debilitating burn injuries sustained while cooking on open fires or on unsafe stoves -- too many little girls who can no longer run or hold a pencil because they were badly burned while helping make the family meal and didn't get proper medical treatment for their burn injuries.
The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves is working to address the problem of cooking-related burns in developing countries by promoting internationally recognized standards and testing protocols to measure how safe a given cookstove is--as well as how clean and efficient it is. The Alliance has helped produce an international document defining criteria to rate cookstoves on four performance indicators, including one for safety. The Alliance is also working with the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to better capture data on the causes of severe burns and injuries, and to pilot burns prevention strategies.
Thankfully, ReSurge surgeons were able to reduce the disabling effects of Miss Poly's burn injuries so that she could move again. She is now able to work and to care for her family. But the scope of the problem remains staggering. More needs to be done to ensure that terrible burn injuries like hers don't happen in the first place.
We must continue to invest in research and development for safer cooking technologies and ensure that the most vulnerable have access to these technologies. And until we are able to prevent these burn injuries from occurring, we must also ensure that people like Miss Poly have access to medical care to properly treat their wounds.
Together, ReSurge and the Alliance are working toward making the world safer for all women and children, calling attention to this neglected global health issue and striving to create positive and lasting change in the world's kitchens and cooking spaces.
Cooking should not maim, kill or disable. Let's stand with the women and girls of the world and commit to ensuring that the simple but essential act of cooking is safer for all.