The direct and indirect impact of lightning in power utilities and systems is well recognized and is often prevented by installing lightning protection systems. However, addressing the effects of lightning on people is quite different and challenging owing to human body complexity and the diverse mechanisms by which lightning affects people. Interestingly, there exist significant differences in the effects of lightning injuries on people in developed and developing countries. While lightning injuries reported in developing countries are characterized by serious injuries described as “charred” or “burned beyond recognition”, those reported in developed countries are generally mild and rarely show significant burns. The causes of such differences remain unclear and have continued to attract research attention.
Over time, numerous reports with evidence showing completely burned thatched buildings and first accounts of victims trapped in burning thatched buildings screaming for help have been reported. Although the victims may scream for help, their inability to escape by themselves is poorly understood. Keraunoparalysis, also known as Charcot’s paralysis, involves transient weakness affecting the lower limbs more commonly. Keraunoparalysis suffered following lightning injury, often occurs in lightning victims and could be the reason why such victims find it difficult to escape from burning thatched buildings after being hit by lightning. Unlike in the developing countries, where most buildings are made of thatched materials, most buildings in the developed world limit the impact of keraunoparalysis because they are generally safe and substantial and do not burn rapidly in the event of a lightning fire outbreak.
To aid in more injury prevention and awareness of the problem, Dr. Daniel Villamil from Universidad Distrital Francisco José de Caldas-Colombia, Dr. Norberto Navarrete from Simón Bolívar Hospital-Columbia and Mary Ann Cooper, MD, retired Professor (Emerita) from the University of Illinois at Chicago and currently directing the African Centers for Lightning and Electromagnetics Network in Chicago reported a detailed description of the severe lightning injuries reported in developing countries based on the combined effects of keraunoparalysis and burning thatch. In their study, “thatch” was used to describe building materials made up of leaves, straw, reeds or similar materials, which make up about 90% of sub-Saharan dwellings according to recent estimates. The original research article is now published in the journal, Electric Power Systems Research.
The research team showed that keraunoparalysis has been frequently reported by survivors of lightning strikes. Its impact prevents people, including even young and healthy individuals, from evacuating the building though their unimpaired respiratory status still allows them to scream for help. The same happens in developed countries, but the only difference is that buildings in developed countries are generally lightning-safe and do not easily catch fire or burn rapidly as those in developing countries. This suggests that a combination of keraunoparalysis and thatched buildings is the main cause of serious lightning injuries reported in developing countries. Moreover, the study of keraunoparalysis is still limited owing to its transitory nature, as most victims report improved symptoms by the time they arrive at medical institutions. It is worth noting that, although keraunoparalysis can resolve within a few hours without treatment, some survivors report lasting weakness, numbness, or pain.
In summary, the study described the deadly combination of keraunoparalysis and burning thatch materials as a likely primary cause of the differences in the description of burns between lightning injury victims reported in developed and developing countries with deadly injuries. The findings were consistent with the available literature on keraunoparalysis and lightning injuries. In a statement to Advances in Engineering, the authors hoped the findings of their study spark multidisciplinary studies into keraunoparalysis and related medical effects of lightning injuries for designing effective lightning protection standards.
Villamil, D., Navarrete, N., & Cooper, M. (2021). Keraunoparalysis and burning thatch: A proposed explanation for severe lightning injuries reported in developing countries. Electric Power Systems Research, 197, 107301.