Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Oesophageal corrosive injuries in children: a forgotten social and health challenge in developing countries

Sandro Contini, Alim Swarray-Deen & Carmelo Scarpignato


An unsafe environment is a risk factor for child injury and violence. Among those injuries that are caused by an unsafe environment, the accidental ingestion of corrosive substances is significant, especially in developing countries where it is generally underreported.


To address this challenging, unmet medical need, we started a humanitarian programme in Sierra Leone. By reviewing the current literature from developing countries and our own experience in the field, we developed a flowchart for management of this clinical condition.

Local setting

This injury is underreported in developing countries. Data available are heavily skewed towards well-resourced centres and do not reflect the entire reality of the condition. Late oesophageal strictures are usually severe. Parent’s lack of knowledge, crowded living conditions and availability of chemicals in and around houses account for most ingestions. The widespread lack of any preventive measures represents the strongest risk factor.

Relevant changes

Timely admission was observed in 19.5% of 148 patients studied. A gastrostomy was performed on 62.1% of patients, 42.8% had recurrent strictures and 19% are still on a continuous dilatation programme. Perforation and death rate were respectively 5.6% and 4%.

Lessons learned

The majority of oesophageal caustic strictures in children are observed late, when dilatation procedures are likely to be more difficult and carry a significantly higher recurrence rate. Gastrostomy is necessary to maintain adequate nutritional status but mothers need training in feeding techniques. Both improvement in nutritional status and sustained oesophageal patency should be the reference points to a successful dilatation.