Injuries as a public health problem in sub-Saharan Africa: epidemiology and prospects for control

East Afr Med J. 2000 Dec;77(12 Suppl):S1-43.


Injuries are common and on increase in most developing countries, including sub-Saharan Africa. A large proportion of the injuries are caused by road traffic accidents, falls, burns, assaults, bites, stings and other animal-related injuries, poisonings, drownings/near-drownings and suicide. Globally, injuries are responsible for about five per cent of the total mortality, and the overall global annual costs were estimated in the late 1980s at around 500 billion US dollars. The burden and pattern of injuries in Africa and other developing areas are poorly known and not well studied. The incidence is on the increase, partly due to rapid growth of motorised transport and to expansion of industrial production without adequate safety precautions. This is a review of data on various kinds of injuries in developing countries with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa. A computerised search of the relevant literature published between 1985 and 1998 was conducted and a manual search of journals publishing texts on health in low-income countries and in tropical environments was also done. A few studies on injury prevention policy and on research related to injury epidemiology and prevention have also been identified and included. It is concluded that in a relatively typical East African area with a total mortality rate of 1,300/100,000/year, injuries are likely to cause around 100 of these deaths. The corresponding total rate of significant injuries is estimated at 40,000/100,000/year with a breakdown as tabulated below. [table: see text] Although a few surveys and other investigations of injuries have been conducted over the years, injury epidemiology and control remain under-researched and relatively neglected subject areas. Much needs to be done. Collection and analysis of injury data need to be standardised, for example regarding age groups, gender disaggregation and severity. Injuries and accidents should be subdivided in at least road traffic injury, fall, burn, assault, poisoning, drowning, suicide, homicide and others, and details regarding time and place, victim and main cause should be noted. Morbidity survey field staff should be informed that injuries are part of the illness concept and that questions should be asked accordingly. Details regarding the circumstances surrounding different injuries must be known to those who develop preventive programmes. Injury is a public health problem affecting some people more than others. Our ordinary environment--the home, the work-site, the street or road--represents various kinds of risk, and some of these are difficult to eliminate. Not only do we have to accept much of our environment with its existing houses, equipment, vehicles, transport systems, energy supply, toxic substances etcetera, many also suffer from various inherited or acquired conditions that increase the risk. We therefore need to develop safer and more "forgiving" living environments where ordinary people can live and move around safely. Injury control activities may focus on different categories of injury. Road safety measures often include information and education campaigns, improved driver training, road design and maintenance, regular vehicle safety checks, separation of pedestrians from vehicle traffic, speed limits, safety belt, air-bag and helmet use, special training and control of public service vehicle drivers, bicycle lane separation, road lighting, reflectorised materials on clothing, review of the road traffic related legislation and law enforcement, and emergency medical services improvement. Domestic injuries can be prevented for example with window guards, child barriers at stairs, smoke detectors, clothes and furniture in less flammable materials, replacement of open stoves, stabilising of open lamps, fire-fighting equipment and practice, child-proof poison packaging and storage, safe disposal of toxic waste, home safety education of parents, and strict building code enforcement. Occupational injuries can largely be prevented if well adapted to the work environment. Research is required in several areas. An improved facility-based injury recording and reporting system needs to be developed and tested. There is need to combine data collection methods, such as interview surveys, hospital records, police records, focus group discussions and key informant interviews. The outcome of emergency medical care and of different forms of transport and referral needs to be determined. Different combinations of preventive interventions needs to be evaluated. This review is intended as guidance for those who need a broad overview of the subject of injury occurrence and prevention in Africa, for example in preparation for the development of injury control programmes or to help identify issues requiring further research in this field.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Africa South of the Sahara / epidemiology
  • Aged
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Public Health / statistics & numerical data*
  • Risk Factors
  • Wounds and Injuries / epidemiology*
  • Wounds and Injuries / etiology
  • Wounds and Injuries / prevention & control*