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The Globe and Mail

Despite safety campaign, Philippines New Year's festivities again plagued by injuries

A woman makes firecrackers in a backyard factory in Bocaue town in Bulacan province, north of Manila Dec. 26, 2011.

Romeo Ranoco/Reuters/Romeo Ranoco/Reuters

Officials in the Philippines mounted one of the most extensive campaigns in the country's history to stem the annual tide of injuries caused by New Year's Eve celebrations.

Grisly posters of mangled hands were displayed. Doctors appeared on television news programs showing the bone saws they would use to amputate fingers blown apart by fireworks. Police officers were threatened with jail if they fired their guns in celebration. One senior health official even took to a stage in a flamboyant dance to show an alternative way to celebrate the new year.

President Benigno Aquino III chimed in, pleading in his annual New Year's message for people to mark the new year with "horns and loud music" instead of fireworks and guns.

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But when the smoke cleared Sunday morning, few officials were celebrating. The Philippines Department of Health estimated that 476 people suffered injuries during the celebrations, including 454 related to fireworks, 18 to celebratory gunfire and four to the ingestion of firecrackers.

The casualties included 177 children younger than 11 and 26 people who required amputations, Health Department officials said.

The total represented a 13-per-cent decline from the total in the previous year and less than the average of 536 injuries.

Despite the decrease, however, Manila emergency room workers did not appear impressed.

"In my experience, it was worse this year than last year," said Janice Sahagun, a surgeon at the Chinese General Hospital and Medical Center in Manila.

Dr. Sahagun described the scene at the hospital as similar to the situation at a medical facility in a war zone, with all staff surgeons on duty, treating patients with severe burns and fingers damaged by fireworks. A number of patients had been in traffic accidents, including some caused by a lack of visibility because of smoke from fireworks. Others had been stabbed or beaten in fights related to the revelry.

The annual Philippine custom of bringing in the new year with high-volume celebrations is rooted in the Chinese tradition of driving away bad luck with noise, but here it has come to involve chaos, violence and high-powered explosives.

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The mayhem was so intense Saturday and early Sunday that more than 10 flights were cancelled or diverted from Manila's airport because of poor visibility from fireworks-related smoke. One of the popular illegal fireworks is called Goodbye Philippines; it has so much explosive force that it has been compared to the bombs being used by the rebels on the restive southern island of Mindanao.

"If it was surrounded by shrapnel, it would have the power of an improvised explosive device," said Senior Superintendent Ranier Idio, a police official in the Manila suburb of Quezon City.

Though government officials from the village level to the president's office had worked to promote a safe celebration, the prospects appeared grim on Dec. 29, when the police conducted a raid on an illegal fireworks stand that led to a gun battle and left one police officer dead.

New York Times News Service

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