ABU DHABI // Children can die after being left alone in a car for only a few minutes during the summer heat, doctors say. At the end of the hottest week in the emirate so far this year, doctors say too many parents are unaware of the danger of leaving children alone in cars.
The heat inside cars can be 30°C higher than outside within just 10 minutes of the vehicle being stationary, meaning children left inside can be exposed to heat of almost 80°C during the summer. Temperatures reached their hottest point of the year earlier this week, with highs of 47°C in Abu Dhabi and 49°C in Al Ain on Thursday. They are expected to drop to the low 40s at the start of the week. Police say they see several such deaths every year.
Dr Taiseer Atrak, the chairman of the paediatric department and chief of neonatology at Mafraq Hospital, confirmed "a few" children each year have died because of the high temperatures, and that being left in hot cars was one of the main causes. "I think it just a lack of parental awareness of the seriousness of the problem," he said. "People do not realise that a baby's body temperature can go three or four times higher than an adult's in just a few minutes. Or that the temperature in the car could be more than 30°C [above] what it is outside the car. The baby can die in less than 10 minutes if they are left in temperatures above 40°C."
He added that the number of heat stroke cases rose each summer. Although most cases are mild, he usually sees one or two deaths every year. Children are much less able than adults to cope with sudden rises in temperature and their bodies can shut down when exposed to very high temperatures. When their body reaches a certain temperature, the sweating mechanism shuts down. When dehydration takes hold it leads to a lack of blood flow to the brain, which can cause seizures, coma and even death. "Even if the child doesn't die, being left in a hot car can cause serious problems," Dr Atrak said. "It is not acceptable for a parent to think 'I will just grab some groceries in two or three minutes', because anything could happen to delay them, and in 10 minutes their child is dead."
Lt Col Mohammed al Neaimi, the deputy director of the emergency and public safety department at Abu Dhabi Police, confirmed his department had dealt with cases of children being left alone in hot cars, some of which ended in death. "We take them seriously," he said. "We do the best we can to reduce the number to zero." He said one child was saved after a passer-by contacted emergency services to report a child looking unwell in a locked car.
An official from the Ministry of Interior said such neglect was becoming more of a problem because of people's increasingly busy lifestyles. "Parents leave their children in front of television, in cars and in the streets," they said. "This is a dangerous phenomenon." In early March, Osama al Najar, four, was found dead in the boot of the family car hours after going missing from his Al Ain home. He had died of asphyxiation.
In May, a four-year-old girl died after being left on her school bus, which was returning to her home in Khalifa City A. Doctors said Aiman Zeeshanuddin succumbed to heat stroke and dehydration. Aatish Shabin, three, was also left on a school bus in Abu Dhabi in April 2008, and also died. The police have not charged anyone over the deaths. Dr Hala Marouf, a paediatrician at the Canadian Specialist Hospital in Dubai, told of one young patient who was left in a hot car for five minutes and fell into a coma for five days.
"Even if the child does not die, it can cause some serious long-term effects, both physical and psychological," she said. "It is very traumatic to be left alone in those circumstances. No parent should ever do it, even for a minute, it is too risky." Dr Joseph Manna, the head of the emergency department at Tawam Hospital in Al Ain, agreed there was never a good reason to leave a child alone in a car, especially during the summer.
"In this heat and this weather, 15 minutes is too long and could be fatal for a small child," he said. "Even if the windows are cracked [open] it doesn't matter." He said temperatures inside a car in the summer would be high enough to "bake anybody". firstname.lastname@example.org * Additional reporting by Hassan Hassan