Updated 11 December 2014

5 festive season emergencies that can leave you broke

The holidays are here which means fun but also accidents, unfortunately, and for a few unlucky souls holiday emergencies could end in financial disaster.

When thinking of the holiday ahead, most people have a picture in their head of sunshine, fun, swimming, a few braais, fishing and parties. But holiday disasters happen, and what’s more, they could do more than spoil your holiday.

In fact, for a few unlucky souls holiday emergencies could end in financial disaster, injury, or even death.

Read: Road deaths up pre-holidays

If you have personal accident cover as part of your insurance, that could cover ambulance or evacuation costs, but you need to check with your individual insurer. Hospital plans and medical schemes will usually pay ambulance costs and emergency, unless specified otherwise. Make sure what you are covered for before you go on holiday. And take your membership card with you.

It has to be noted that alcohol and drug abuse plays a profound role in many, though definitely not all, of the holiday disasters listed below.

Apart from being injured or losing your life, medical attention, rescue or evacuation from a crisis situation or scene of an injury could also be very costly. You might need to be evacuated by air (plane or helicopter) or by ambulance, depending on the severity of your injuries.

Some organisations such as the National Sea Rescue Institute and other rescue organisations fundraise and make use of volunteers in order to provide a free service, but many other emergency services charge upfront – and this can be costly.

Netcare911 is a medical rescue service that will respond to any emergency, regardless of whether the patient can pay or not. But if you can pay, you will be expected to do so. The state ambulance service will respond to all calls, but depending on the area, it could take time – time which one often might not have in a holiday emergency. State patients pay according to their income for hospital treatment, but this can be as little as R39 for an unemployed person.

Costs are determined by several factors, such as the treatment required, the time and the medication that is needed, says Werner Vermaak, the Communications manager of ER24.

To be transported in an ambulance costs in the region of R2000 or more, according to Vermaak, but he says that there are cases where it would cost less. In emergencies upfront payment is not required and treatment will not be refused if a patient is unable to pay, although patients are reminded that ER24 is a private service and that there could be costs involved. Medical schemes usually cover these costs.

Helicopter assistance would be much more expensive than an ambulance, and costs are determined by the travel distance and current fuel costs.

Here’s more about 5 specific holiday disasters.

1. Drowning or near-drowning incidents

Accurate drowning statistics are difficult to determine in South Africa, according to Dhaya Sewduth, voluntary president of Lifesaving South Africa. Government departments don’t always keep accurate records, so most statistics on drowning come from the SAPS.

Netcare 911 notes that it is not only the sea in which especially children drown, but rural dams, rivers and swimming pools – often inland. But coastal areas in December 2013 were responsible for 79% of drowning incidents for that year.

For children under the age of 15 years, drowning is the second leading cause of death after car accidents. In 2010, Stats SA says that 1428 people drowned in South Africa, which is almost four a day.

When it comes to causes of drowning in children, a lack of adult supervision, accidental immersion in pools and dams and an inability to swim or recognise danger top the list. In those over the age of 10, 43.6% of the drowning cases had positive blood-alcohol levels, according to Lifesaving SA. Homicides and suicides also are causes of drowning.

Read more about drowning first aid, and prevention of drowning

2. Burns

The majority of burns occur in and around the home, according to the Child Accident Prevention Foundation of South Africa. Of 7241 child patients admitted to the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital between 1992 and 2001, 72.1% had fluid burns and 11.7 flame burns. Children are, of course, not the only people at risk of sustaining burns, especially over the holiday season.

Accidents around braai fires, candle flames and gas and paraffin lights can affect both adults and children. Serious burns can have life-long consequences. When on holiday, people are often out of their usual environment and their vigilance could be reduced. Fire can and often does kill. When it comes to fire, most fatal injuries occur in the 20 – 40 age group in South Africa. Shack fires and fuel stoves were responsible for 21% of hospital admissions to the Tygerberg Burn Unit between 2003 and 2008.

What to do in an emergency related to burns: First aid for burns

3. Alcohol poisoning

South Africans are a nation of enthusiastic drinkers. In fact, South Africans drink in excess of 5 billion litres of alcohol per year, according to an estimate quoted in the South African Medical Journal. What’s more, the World Health Organization puts SA on a 4 out of a possible 5 when it gets to a scale of risky drinking patterns.

Read: Easy ways to cut down on drinking

Alcohol abuse contributes to crime, reckless driving and road deaths, drowning incidents, violence, domestic violence, unsafe sex and child neglect – all of which are likely to increase over the holiday season.

Sixty percent of drivers who die in car accidents and seventy percent of pedestrians who are killed have dangerously high levels of alcohol in their blood, according to the MRC.

But alcohol itself, when taken in excess, can directly cause death. The amounts deemed to be dangerous depend on age, body weight and gender, but an excess of alcohol can cause brain damage, cause seizures, and cause your heart to stop. It is difficult to get exact statistics on alcohol poisoning, as it is often a factor in a wide variety of accidental or crime-related deaths. It often also goes hand-in-hand with drug abuse.

Acute alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency and should be treated as such.

Read more about alcohol poisoning

4. Car crashes

Road death statistics in SA are frightening. Many factors play a role, such as alcohol abuse, non-wearing of seatbelts, unroadworthy vehicles, speeding, driver fatigue (especially over the holiday season) unlicensed drivers and the poor condition of some roads in this country.

Between 1 December 2011 and 10 January 2012, Arrive Alive states that 1230 people died in road accidents on SA’s roads.

Pedestrians and passengers on public transport are at the highest risk of death. Fatal accidents during the festive season are most likely to occur between 19h00 and 23h00, and people most likely to die in these accidents are aged between 19 and 29, according to Arrive Alive.

They urge festive-season drivers to take safety breaks, obey the rules of the road, not to speed, not to overload, not to drink and drive, wear a seatbelt and to maintain safe following distances.

Here’s what to do if you are first on the scene of an accident

5. Sunstroke

South African summers are hot, and many holidaymakers forget quite how potent the sun can be. These include not only those on beaches and at swimming pools, but also people hiking, or camping, taking part in outdoor sports such as long-distance running, or just having fun outdoors.

Young children and the elderly are particularly susceptible to sunstroke. Symptoms of sunstroke include weakness, nausea, a clammy skin, a rapid pulse, confusion, cramps, sweating, sweating, fainting and diarrhea. It is recommended that you keep out of the sun between 10am and 4pm, drink lots of water, and wear protective clothing, such as a hat and a long-sleeved shirt if you have to be outside.

If someone has sunstroke, put the person in a cold bath of water, or wrap him/her in wet towels. If you have little water, cool down the head and neck. If the person is conscious, get them to drink water in an effort to rehydrate.

Sunstroke is a medical emergency and it is recommended that you call an ambulance.

Emergency numbers to have handy 

State ambulance: 10177   (112 from cellphone)
Netcare 911: 082911
ER24: 084124
National Sea Rescue Institute: 112 (or after hours Craig Lambinon 0823803800)
Off Road Rescue Unit: 021 9370300

Read more:
Your scheme and holiday disasters
Holidays spell trouble for diabetics
Festive season traps
Healthy holiday