In 2013 news spread around the world of a baby in Villupuram, India, who was admitted to a hospital with burns on his chest, head and abdomen.
Initially suspected of abuse or neglect, the baby's mother offered a strange explanation: her son Rahul had been burned in a case of mysterious "spontaneous human combustion" (SHC) in which people are said to inexplicably burst into flames.
The idea that people can suddenly catch fire for no apparent reason has been around for over a century. Despite the common belief, scientists have never proven that the phenomenon actually happens.
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Not only is there no plausible medical or physiological mechanism by which a person could generate enough heat to catch fire, but there exists no film or video evidence of it ever occurring. In most of the supposedly "mysterious" cases of SHC, the victim -- often intoxicated and/or elderly or poorly mobile -- was last seen near an open flame.
Tragedy Strikes Again Indian doctors could find no evidence that there was anything abnormal about little Rahul, and his burns soon healed. The boy returned to his home without further incident. However the parents of the same child have a new baby -- who has also recently been taken to a hospital with similar burns.
According to an article in The Times of India, "The 10-day-old baby was brought to Kilpauk Medical College Hospital with 5 percent burn injuries on his feet and thigh after he allegedly caught fire on his own. The hospital has formed a committee to figure out what is causing the newborn to 'go up in flames,' as his parents claim. Doctors who treated his brother Rahul said the children could have been physically abused, possibly due to superstition. They recommended that police take a closer look at the case. Dr. Jagan Mohan, who treated Rahul at KMCH last year said, 'There is no such thing as spontaneous human combustion. When Rahul was admitted to the hospital last year we clearly told the parents that it looked like someone was deliberately setting the infant on fire.'"
Skeptical doctors also noted that when the child was under medical supervision there was no sign of any combustion, spontaneous or otherwise; the boy only seemed to suffer burns when left alone in the care of his parents.
If one or both of the boy's parents are harming the children for sympathy or attention, it could be a case of a psychological disorder called Munchausen syndrome by proxy, in which a person (typically a parent or caretaker) acts as if a child has an illness, or in some cases may actually harm the child.
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Shanmuga Velayutham of the Legal Resource Center for Child Rights said he believed that the family was injuring the child "to get sympathy and benefits from the government," noting that in 2013 when they claimed their son Rahul was a victim of spontaneous human combustion, the story made news around the world and garnered economic support from the government and others -- including financial assistance and a new home.
Why would the family need a new home? According to one early theory the boy's burns could have been caused by dried cow dung which was present in the family's rural hut and contains phosphorous, which has a low ignition point and might have ignited. A new, dung-free home was provided to them. However this explanation, as well as spontaneous human combustion, has largely been discarded in favor of a far more likely, mundane, and tragic cause: parental abuse.
Police are continuing to investigate the case and forensic experts are expected to search the home for flammable substances near the child's bed or clothes. It seems likely that if the abuse claims are proven, the couple's children will be removed from the home for their safety.