India : down south, baby burns

6 Septembre 2013

In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, a new born infant is reported to have ‘burst into flames’. This baby boy born on May 22 was admitted to a government hospital in accordance with the above mentioned claims.

Credits -- Anupama Chandrasekaran
Credits -- Anupama Chandrasekaran
The baby, Rahul, currently three months old is now being diagnosed for various conditions. Over the past few days mixed reports flowed in. Some newspapers claimed that there were allegations of child abuse while others claimed a rare medical condition called Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC).

During the first few days of this complaint, doctors had conducted all their diagnostics trying to prove the claim. However, these tests done on baby Rahul turned the picture even hazier. Some doctors said it might be due to the rare presence of methane under the skin, which while escaping into air vaporizes, thereby inducing a flame. But, the reports said otherwise and most of them claimed the child to exhibit normal metabolic behavior.

The villagers had another perspective of this issue. Before being admitted to the hospital, the parents claim, the child to have burned down their hut with the flames emanating from his body. Neighbors, relatives claimed the child to have been possessed by devil. The district authorities on learning about this took matters into their hands and ensured the baby’s safety. The child was admitted in various other hospitals before coming to this government hospital in Chennai, Tamil Nadu.

Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC)

Though many claim this case to be one of SHC, there is no evidence to prove or disprove this assertion. Doctors have taken swabs of sweat, saliva samples and skin from the baby for biopsy. The result from the diagnosis does not seem to help them at all. However, SHC is accepted as a theory capable of explaining this. Spontaneous Human Combustion is an extremely rare phenomenon in which the human body starts burning without any external agent to ignite. So far in the history of modern medical sciences spanning over hundreds of years, just 200 cases have been cited.

In 1980, Henry Thomas, a 73 year old man was found dead in his council house in South Wales. His entire body was incarcerated while the socks and trousers he was wearing were intact. A similar case was recorded in 2010 when 76 year old Michael Faherty was found burnt to death in his house in Galway in Ireland.

Under constant monitor

The baby, Rahul, is now under intense supervision of doctors and over 30 tests including genetic, chromosome analysis have been conducted. The results are puzzling and have rendered the doctors clueless about Rahul's condition.

The baby is said to have gone up in flames four times so far and has sustained burn injuries on its body. Plastic surgeons are working alongside on skin grafts. Doctors say, if the condition is indeed proved to be a case of SHC, then extreme care must be taken in ensuring that the baby is not exposed to very hot environments. They also added that constant air-conditioning would also be required.

SHC or Child Abuse?

Many reports point at possible child abuse, which even the authorities have not ruled out. A debate ensues in the background of whether it is a medical condition or otherwise and a psychiatric evaluation is done for the parents to determine that.

“There was no evidence of physical abuse”, said Dr. Narayana Babu, head of pediatrics who is leading the team with this case. “We are considering the spontaneous combustion factor”. He adds that this condition is ‘rarest of rare’. “It has been scientifically proven that concentrated combustion air excreted from the body could induce such episodes. In elderly people, extreme alcoholism could be a factor”.

Baby Rahul is now being treated with external applications of ointment for burns and kept in a controlled environment. The doctors also add that, if the condition of SHC is proved, they would train the parents on avoiding conditions that could cause him to go up in flames.

A series of tests conducted on the baby recently turned to be inconclusive with reports implying no odd condition to trigger spontaneous condition. Currently, the psychiatric reports of parents are being compiled to investigate with the perspective of child abuse. Few days back, genetic karyotyping was done to find out if there was a defect at the genetic level which could have triggered this condition. Even this test did not give a clear picture of the condition. The baby is set to be discharged by Friday and all concerning reports are sent to the police for further investigation.