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Drowning - "The biggest killer no-one has heard of"

A swimming instructor teaches a child swimming and water-survival skills in Dhaka, Bangladesh
(Courtesy of the Royal Life Saving Society- Australia)

Deaths by drowning, a leading cause of mortality among children between one and four in many low- and middle-income Asian countries, are underestimated, reports show.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 388,000 people die every year from drowning. But when nationally represented surveys are incorporated, the number of deaths attributed to drowning climbs to an annual one million.

"Nobody knows what the real number is. We have what can be thought of as a conservative estimate," David Meddings, a scientist with WHO's department of violence and injury prevention and disability, told IRIN from the World Conference on Drowning Prevention 2011.  "But the fact is, even at the lower bound of the estimate range, we are talking about an important cause of mortality."

According to the most recent World Report on Child Injury Prevention, by WHO and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), drowning is the leading cause of injury and death among under-fives in both the United States and Asia, but the rate of death by drowning is some 30 times higher in Asia.

Research by the Alliance for Safe Children, a Thailand-based organization that works to reduce the number of preventable child deaths in Asia, shows 95 percent of all childhood drowning deaths occur in Asia, where two-thirds of the world's children live.

"The child drowning epidemic has been invisible," said Michael Linnan, technical director at the Alliance for Safe Children. "It is the biggest killer that no one has heard of."

Prevention strategies

The 400 delegates representing 50 countries at the four-day conference in Da Nang, Vietnam, from 10 May, will be drafting the first global strategy for preventing child drowning in low- and middle-income countries.

The strategy will urge worldwide data collection and the implementation of drowning-prevention programmes, according to a preliminary draft.

Some highly effective prevention strategies from high-income countries, such as bridges, physical barriers to pools of water and supervision, can save lives in these lower-income countries, Meddings said.

A recent study in Bangladesh, where WHO estimates drowning accounts for 20 percent of all childhood deaths, proved preventing drownings through swim-safety and home-based outreach programmes can be not only effective, but affordable, Linnan said.

Research showed the US$12.60 per-child cost of a swim-safety course is on a par with the expense of childhood vaccines.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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