A burn occurs when some or all of the different layers of cells in the skin are destroyed by a hot liquid (scald), a hot solid (contact burns) or a flame (flame burns). Burns pose a serious global public health problem with over 195 000 deaths annually from fire-related burns alone. Skin injuries due to ultraviolet radiation, radioactivity, electricity or chemicals, as well as respiratory damage resulting from smoke inhalation, are also considered to be burns.

If deaths due to scalds, electrical burns and other forms of burns were considered, the death toll would be much higher. However, such global data are not available. Fire-related deaths are the 15th leading cause of death for children and young adults aged 5–29 years.

Over 95% of fatal fire-related burns occur in low- and middle-income countries. The highest mortality rates occur at the extremes of age; among children under 5 years and older people at 70 years and older. Besides the high death toll, millions suffer lifelong disability and disfigurement, often resulting in stigma and rejection.

What makes this death toll so unacceptable is that it could be prevented. Developed countries have been very successful in reducing-fire related deaths through proven preventive interventions and services for those suffering burns. These interventions and services could be adopted by developing countries, with adaptation to local circumstances, through collective and concerted efforts at national, regional and global levels.

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WHO Collaborating Centre for Emergency Medicine and Trauma Care