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Ultra violet rays- Over-exposure to the sun can damage your child’s brain

By Vision Reporter

Added 3rd May 2009 03:00 AM

THE sun is synonymous with Africa as is the tradition of women strapping their babies to the back. However, unknown to many is the danger of continued exposure to Ultra Violet (UV) rays as babies hang on their mothers backs for long hours.

THE sun is synonymous with Africa as is the tradition of women strapping their babies to the back. However, unknown to many is the danger of continued exposure to Ultra Violet (UV) rays as babies hang on their mothers backs for long hours.

By Irene Nabusoba

THE sun is synonymous with Africa as is the tradition of women strapping their babies to the back. However, unknown to many is the danger of continued exposure to Ultra Violet (UV) rays as babies hang on their mothers backs for long hours.

Romeo Brooker-white, the executive director of Mtoto Wa Njua (child of the sun), an NGO, says failure to cover the baby’s fontanelle, the soft spot on a baby’s head, particularly predisposes them to brain damage.

The Masaka-based organisation advocates protection of infants from continued exposure to the sun.

Brooker-white says a fontanelle is an anatomical feature on an infant’s skull which, during birth, enables the bony plates of the skull to flex, allowing the baby’s head to pass through the birth canal.

The 60-year old retired nurse from the US explains that under normal circumstances, fontanelles are supposed to close at approximately 18 months or generally before the baby’s second birthday.

“But many children are having their fontanelles closing sooner because of over exposure to the sun. This means the brain is not being allowed sufficient time to develop enough cells for life because of over exposure to UV rays,” she says.

“These fontanelles are there for two reasons; to assist in the birth process and to nurture brain growth.

However, from the time an infant is born, even before he can hold the head in an upright position; he is strapped to the mother’s back in the sun without any covering on the head.

“This means the baby is not being given enough time to develop the brain cells. In most cases, the mother is working or walking in the sun most of the day.

“The practice will continue until the infant can walk at approximately two years. With this, they risk brain damage and lowered immunity,” Brooker-white argues.

Understanding the significance of fontanelles
MedicinePlus, an online medical journal, says the skull is made up of many bones, seven in the skull itself and 14 in the facial area.

“They join to form a solid bony cavity that protects the brain and supports the structures of the head,” the site reveals.

“The bones are not joined together firmly at birth for the head to pass through the birth canal in a process called moulding.

“The sutures (the areas where the bones join) get minerals added to them over time and harden, firmly joining the skull bones together (ossification),” it explains.

In an infant, the space where two sutures join forms a membrane-covered ‘soft spot’ called a fontanelle that allows for growth of the skull during an infant’s first year.

The report says there are normally several fontanelles on a newborn’s skull, mainly at the top, back, and sides of the head. Like the sutures, fontanelles ossify over time and become closed solid bony areas.

Dr. John William Twinomuhangi, says the fontanelle in the back of the head (posterior fontanelle) usually closes by the time an infant is one to two months old, while the anterior fontanelle (at the top of the head) usually closes by the time the baby is 18 months.

“The fontanelles should feel firm and very slightly carved inward to the touch. A sunken or bulging fontanelle could spell a medical emergency and mothers should seek medical attention,” Twinomuhangi advises.

Locally known as kawumpu, a sunken fontanelle indicates dehydration and malnutrition, Twinomuhangi says.

“When the infant is crying, lying down, or vomiting, the fontanelles may look like they are bulging, but they should return to normal when the infant is in a calm, head-up position.

Healthcare providers should check a sunken fontanelle right away.
“They could ask whether the baby has been ill, especially with vomiting, diarrhea, or excessive sweating and whether there are signs of extreme thirst and dry lips or eyes,” he says.

Likewise, immediate emergency care is needed for any infant who has a bulging fontanelle, especially if it occurs with fever or excess drowsiness.

“A tense or bulging fontanelle means increased intracranial pressure associated with meningitis,” Twinomuhangi says.

“It could also indicate congenital conditions like hydrocephalus or down’s syndrome, which may also lead to slow closure or open fontanelles throughout life, but these will usually be detected at birth,” he explains.

Twinomuhangi says some parents may worry that their infants may be more prone to injury at the fontanelles or that there is are scaly-like features covering the spot.

“The membrane covering the fontanelles is extremely tough and difficult to penetrate. Besides, even with the scaly features, it is clean; do not attempt to scratch it off. That is a natural mechanism of protection,” he says.

Twinomuhangi, however, adds: “I do not know of any research that says over-exposure to the sun forces funtanelles to close faster. Some babies’ fontanelles close faster while others take longer.

But over-exposure to the sun may lead to dehydration. Babies are vulnerable given that their skins are thin.

“Nonetheless, mothers should keenly observe their babies’ fontanelles for any changes,” Twinomuhangi says.

Brooker-white regrets that most scientists concetrate on how crops could be affected by environmental degradation, water purity vis-à-vis clearance of swamps and desertification from deforestation.

“No one is talking about the effects of UV rays or their effect on children and women who shoulder most of the manual roles that should ideally be performed by men,” she says.

Brooker-white says mothers should be sensitised on the effects of UV rays and educated on how to protect their young ones from over-exposure.

“However,” Brooker-white argues, “in Uganda, education about the danger of UV rays is going to take a while because this is a whole new area that has never been explored.”

Ultra violet rays- Over-exposure to the sun can damage your child’s brain

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