A 3-month-old Indian baby has burst into flames at least four times without any obvious external cause, leading doctors to investigate the possibility that the infant suffers from spontaneous human combustion.
After being forced to leave their village because their neighbors feared fire from the child would burn their homes, the baby's parents moved to a nearby village and then again, with the help of government authorities, to Chennai for treatment at a hospital.
Medical opinion about spontaneous human combustion is divided, to say the least, though there have been some prominent recent cases. In 2011, an Irish coroner said spontaneous human combustion was the cause of death for a 76-year-old, and Brian J. Ford, a British research biologist, wrote a 2012 article in The New Scientist about the disorder.
“There have been a few cases where people have suffered S.H.C. and have swatted the flames out, leading to their complete recovery,” said Mr. Ford in an e-mail to the New York Times. “In most examples it is fatal, as the cases are found after the event. Typically, there is just a pile of ash with protruding extremities.”
The New York Times also spoke to Dr. Narayan Babu, the head of pediatrics at Kilpauk Medical Hospital, where the baby is being treated, earlier this week.
“We are in a dilemma and haven’t come to any conclusion,” Dr. Narayan Babu said. “The parents have held that the child burned instantaneously without any provocation. We are carrying out numerous tests. We are not saying it is SHC until all investigations are complete.”
Doctors at Kilpauk Medical College and Hospital (KMCH) conducted all possible tests, including a chromosome test, gene analysis and skin biopsy, to figure out if Rahul could actually 'catch fire' on his own.
The doctors had even invited a team from Sastra University to check if the boy's skin emitted inflammable gases, but were left with no evidence of spontaneous human combustion. The only possibilities that remain are that the baby was burnt in an accident or was abused.
"I still stand by what I said, that there is no such thing as spontaneous human combustion. The possibility of child abuse exists and needs to be explored ," said Dr J Jagan Mohan, head of the burns department at KMCH.
The baby's parents have denied allegations that the injuries could have come from abuse.
"We're not crazy to burn our own baby,” Karnan Perumal, the baby's father, told the New York Times. “Some people don’t believe us, and I am scared to return to my village and am hoping for some government protection. There is also the fear that our child could burn once again.”