Harry Potter Books Keep Kids Safe

Drop in ER visits seen on weekends when new installments were released

THURSDAY, Dec. 22, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- In the fight against the Dark Lord Voldemort, innocent children have been killed and Harry Potter himself has been savagely marked with a lightning bolt scar on his forehead.

But in the more mundane -- and real -- Muggle world, the raging battle has produced an opposite effect: empty emergency rooms.

British researchers report that they have found that the number of Muggle children visiting the emergency room in that country dropped by half on the summer weekends when new Harry Potter books were released.

"We were surprised at the magnitude of the effect it could have," said Dr. Stephen Gwilym, lead author of a study appearing in the Dec. 24/31 issue of the British Medical Journal. "But when you think about the widespread uptake of the books, perhaps it's not surprising."

In the United States and Britain, the newest Harry Potter book, The Half-Blood Prince, the sixth in J.K. Rowling's series, sold almost 9 million copies in the first 24 hours of its release in July, according to news reports. The books have been translated into more than 60 languages so far.

Somewhat fewer, but still a substantial number, of children go to emergency departments with traumatic injuries: about 2 million each year in the United Kingdom. About 300 die as a result of their injuries, according to the Child Accident Prevention Trust.

The injury traffic tends to increase during the summer months, when long daylight hours, warm weather and school holidays favor inline skating, tree climbing and rides on microscooters, the British researchers pointed out.

"We see broken bones, fractures of the forearm and wrist, fractures of the ankle, head injuries. They tend to be the most common," said Gwilym, who is specialist registrar with the department of orthopaedic trauma surgery at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. "From sports, falling off bikes, falling out of a tree, pushed over by a brother."

However, one summer weekend, Gwilym and study senior author Dr. Keith Willett noticed a very strange thing: quiet in the emergency room.

"We were working weekend on the trauma unit, and we were twiddling our thumbs," Gwilym recalled. "There was not work at all, so I suggested that Dr. Willett could go home and I'd cover the unit. He said there was no point to that because four of his five children [the fifth couldn't yet read] were lined up on the sofa reading Harry Potter."

"He'd had to buy four copies of the book, so none of his children got it before the others," Gwilym continued.

That gave the doctors an idea: Was there a drop in trauma attendances by children when Harry Potter books were released?

Gwilym himself deemed the Harry Potter books "excellent." (He didn't buy them, though, but borrowed them from a young relative who had bought and read them the first weekend they were out.)

This study involved little magic. Gwilym and his colleagues reviewed the files of all children aged 7 to 15 (good reading ages) who attended their emergency department with musculoskeletal injuries over the summer months of a three-year period.

They then compared the number of emergency-room admissions on weekends a Harry Potter book had been released with admissions on surrounding weekends and on the same weekend in previous years.

The two most recent Harry Potter books were launched on Saturday, June 21, 2003 (The Order of the Phoenix) and on Saturday, July 16, 2005 (Half-Blood Prince).

In June and July 2003 through 2005, the mean attendance rate for children during the control weekends was 67.4.

But on the weekends that these two Harry Potter books were released, it dropped to 36 and 37. At no other point during the three-year time frame was attendance that low.

"It means that 30 children didn't break bones or have to get admitted for surgery," Gwilym said. "Children aren't injuring themselves and getting surgery on those weekends."

Do these intriguing results indicate a role for Harry Potter (or just reading) in injury prevention?

"It may . . . be hypothesized that there is a place for a committee of safety-conscious, talented writers who could produce high quality books for the purpose of injury prevention," the authors wrote in their study.

But there is a problem with this strategy.

"Obviously, if children are always in reading books and not outside getting exercise, there is a long-term risk of obesity, rickets and lack of sunlight," Gwilym noted.

"We certainly would promote children's literacy, and certainly decreasing traumatic injury is great, but we want kids to be physically active," added Dr. Danielle Laraque, a professor of pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. "We don't decrease injuries by having kids not participate."

At Harry Potter's school, Hogwarts, students have learned to balance the two, alternating studying for Wizarding exams with a brisk game of Quidditch. The Quidditch craze, fortunately, has yet to reach Muggledom.

"We haven't seen anybody falling off broomsticks just yet," Gwilym said. "But it might happen."

More information

The Child Accident Prevention Trust has more on children's safety issues.

SOURCES: Stephen Gwilym, M.D., specialist registrar, department of orthopaedic trauma surgery, John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, England; Danielle Laraque, M.D., professor, pediatrics, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City; Dec. 24/31, 2005, British Medical Journal
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