On this first World Drowning Prevention Day, the World Health Organization offers life-saving solutions to prevent most of the 236,000 estimated deaths from drowning every year. The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution in April establishing this international day to raise awareness of drowning as a serious problem.
Summertime has been celebrated in song as the season when the living is easy. On a less celebratory note, summertime in the northern hemisphere also is the peak season for deaths by drowning.
Over the past decade, the World Health Organization reports 2.5 million people have died in drowning incidents. It says more than half of all drowning deaths are among people under age 30, with the highest rates among children under the age of five.
David Meddings, a WHO medical officer, said drowning is the second leading cause of death among children and youth under age 19 in wealthy countries such as the United States, Switzerland, and France. He notes, though, drowning disproportionately affects the poor and the marginalized.
“The rates for drowning in low- and middle-income countries are three times higher than the rates we observe in higher-income countries. And so, it is really the populations with the least resources to be able to adapt to the threats around them that are at highest risk for drowning. The Western Pacific region has the world’s highest drowning rates followed by the African region,” he said.
WHO reports more than 90% of drowning deaths occur in rivers, lakes, wells, irrigation canals and even domestic water storage vessels in the poorer countries. It says children and adolescents in rural areas are disproportionately affected.
Meddings said national surveys in Africa show most drownings occur among young adult men out on fishing vessels.
“For example, there was a study done in Tanzania among lakeside communities that show that the risk of death from drowning exceeded the risk of death in that population for death from HIV, TB or malaria. So, 80% of deaths occurring in young adult men who are in a sense obligated to go out on fishing vessels that often are inherently unsafe watercraft without advance weather warning and without knowing how to swim,” he said.
The report does not include statistics on flood-related mortality, deaths due to water transport mishaps such as capsized ferry boats, or migrant deaths that occur while crossing the perilous Mediterranean Sea.
WHO recommends a number of cost-effective life-saving measures. It says children should be taught basic swimming and water safety skills, wells and potentially dangerous water areas should be fenced off, and bystanders should be trained in safe rescue and resuscitation. It says safe boating and ferry regulations should be enforced and calls for flood risk management to be improved.