UAE expat Mohammad Ashraf still recalls the tense September afternoon last year when he had to rush his then two-year-old into surgery, after his stomach swelled up to twice its size.
His son Younis Ashraf had accidentally swallowed five small magnets.
Mohammad and his wife Ala Salamah waited with bated breath outside the operation theatre. It took two operations within 48 hours for doctors in an Ajman hospital to finally remove the five small magnets.
The Egyptian couple has another child, four-year-old Yazid. It is for him that Mohammad had bought a set of small magnets meant to be toys for children. However, it soon proved to be troublesome for the family.
“I had told my younger son [Younis] not to touch it but we later found out that he did,” he said.
For one whole day, little Younis complained of pain in his stomach. “He wasn’t able to sit down. He was running like a horse in the house because of the pain,” Mohammad said.
He was taken to an emergency room at a hospital where doctors thought it might have been a bacterial infection.
However, his pain only increased and he started vomiting in the next couple of days.
“He started vomiting green and could not swallow anything,” Mohammad said.
Eventually, the family was sent to Sheikh Khalifa Medical City in Ajman.
Different types and sizes of magnets can easily be purchased either in the market or via various internet sites. They are either components of some toys or parts of adult anti stress mechanisms.
“The two-year-old boy had accidentally ingested five small magnets three days prior to attending the hospital,” said Dr Nadeem Haider, consultant paediatric and neonatal surgeon at the hospital.
By the time Younis was brought to the hospital, he was critically ill and required admission to the paediatric intensive care unit.”
An X-ray showed five magnets in his intestines which were all stuck together.
“Whilst, to the naked eye, it looked as if they were all one unit but our doctors were concerned that they were actually ingested at different times and were in different sections of the intestines and were all sticking together and causing ruptures and blockage of the intestines,” said Haider.
A team of paediatric intensive care doctors, paediatric anaesthetists and paediatric surgeons immediately had to prepare for a lifesaving surgery.
The surgical carried out two major operations within 48 hours.
During all this time, and for two days after the surgery, Younis stayed in paediatric intensive care on a breathing machine and required advanced lifesaving drugs to support the child’s heart, brain and kidneys.
Dr Haider said that during the first operation, he found that the whole small intestine had twisted as a result of the magnets being in different parts of the intestines.
“The intestine was close to sustaining permanent damage which would have required removal of a large segment of the small intestine,” he said.
After untwisting the intestine, he performed a second operation where a small segment of the intestine had ruptured from the magnets and had to be completely removed and the two ends joined together.
Another part of intestine also had to be repaired.
The child stayed at the hospital in post-operative intensive care for a long time and was discharged more than two weeks later.
Advice for parents
Dr Haider urged that parents ensure that there are no small magnets in their households. “Some of these magnets are very colourful and attractive and children may mistake them as candies and try to eat them,” he said.
Talking about how common it is for children to swallow smart toys, Dr Haider said: “Almost all paediatric surgical centres in the UAE have experienced serious complications from children ingesting magnets.”
Mohammad and his wife are extra careful now when they buy toys.
“We didn’t see the age the toy is suitable for, on the packaging, it’s surely our fault,” Mohammad said.
He added that he has removed all toys containing small parts from his house.
“Every toy I buy now, I read the suitable age on it. I have even thrown out small building blocks from our house. It’s always better to be safe than sorry, I learnt that the hard way,” the father of two said.
Neodymium magnets are not only a hazard because children are tempted swallow them but they are also brittle and break easily. Bits can suspend in the air and protecting eyes while using them is recommended. Neodymium magnets can also stick together, pinch the skin and cause serious injuries.
Appeal to UAE authorities
Dr Haider said: “We would like to request immediate ban on the availability and sale of magnets, both in the markets and online, to avoid any further harm to the children of UAE.”