Editorial: B.C. needs to tackle issue of concussion

 

Clear set of universal rules could save young athletes

 
 
 
 
Rowan Stringer died after a head injury suffered while playing high school rugby.
 

Rowan Stringer died after a head injury suffered while playing high school rugby.

Photograph by: Darren Brown, Darren Brown/Ottawa Sun/QMI AGency

Every robust sport from snowboarding to rugby involves risk. We encourage them because health benefits outweigh potential hazards. Nevertheless, every adult is duty-bound to ensure children are not unnecessarily exposed to risks that are easily avoided.

We hold adults both legally and ethically accountable if they permit children under their supervision to engage in dangerous activities without intervening. Adults are expected to insist upon personal flotation devices for kids going kayaking; we expect adults to ensure children wear helmets when cycling; we impose standards for protective safety in organized soccer, hockey or football.

Statistics, however, suggest adults can do better. The University of Winnipeg’s concussion institute says more than 40 per cent of child and youth injuries treated in emergency departments are sport and recreation related. More than 60 per cent involve patients 14 or under. One in three is aged five to nine. Furthermore, it notes, sports and recreational activities were the third leading cause of traumatic brain injury admissions to Canadian hospitals during the study year 2003-2004. Sports-related concussions in Canada each year number perhaps 30,000. The likelihood of a young athlete in a contact sport experiencing concussion may be as high as one in five. All childhood injuries under 19 now cost Canada’s health care system $5.1 billion a year in direct and indirect costs. So numbers suggest a significant percentage must be attributable to sports and recreation. And medical research warns that concussions once thought minor can have lifelong consequences — and social costs.

Judgments regarding concussions are often distorted by intense emotion for young athletes. Sometimes desire causes them to ignore, rationalize or hide symptoms. That’s why it’s incumbent upon adults to make decisions in the best interests of the child — and for society to collectively ensure that adults in authority do so.

This reasoning drives the Ontario government’s decision to propose Canada’s first coherent and universal set of provincial protocols for managing concussion. It was prompted by recommendations from a coroner’s inquest into the 2013 death of teenage rugby player Rowan Stringer. She suffered three concussions in less than a week. Now Ontario is poised to adapt international guidelines. It would call for education on sports-related concussion and symptoms for athletes, parents and coaches; clear rules for removing an injured athlete from play; protocols for medical clearance before returning to play and strategies for most safely managing that return.

In fairness, minor sports organizations already address the growing awareness of head injury as a significant risk for young athletes. Educational programs and concussion management protocols are in place for minor hockey and school sports. Here in B.C., minor football has proved an effective and committed leader. Rules changes have reduced head contact in rugby. In fact, that sport’s tackling protocols are even being adopted by professional football franchises such as the Seattle Seahawks. The problem is that all these admirable initiatives vary from organization to organization and from district to district. That institutionalizes inconsistency.

And that’s what’s wrong with the B.C. government’s laissez-faire response to Ontario’s initiative. Minor sports organizations deserve and need a clear set of universal rules setting out exactly what must be done to protect children from concussion. Health Minister Terry Lake should revisit this file with a view to providing provincewide consistency and clarity of purpose. That will empower amateur sports organizations, not encumber them.

 
 
 
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Rowan Stringer died after a head injury suffered while playing high school rugby.
 

Rowan Stringer died after a head injury suffered while playing high school rugby.

Photograph by: Darren Brown, Darren Brown/Ottawa Sun/QMI AGency

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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