UNICEF Report: Drowning causes one in four child deaths in parts of Asia

A new UNICEF report states that highly effective and cost-efficient programs to reduce drowning deaths are not being sufficiently implemented.

NEW YORK (May 24, 2012) — A new report states that although drowning is a leading killer of children across parts of Asia, highly effective and cost-efficient programs to reduce drowning deaths are not being sufficiently implemented.

The report, "Child Drowning – Evidence for a newly recognized epidemic and its prevention," surveyed four countries (Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand), together with two provinces in China (Beijing and Jiangxi).

The research, conducted by The Alliance for Safe Children (TASC) in collaboration with UNICEF’s Office of Research, finds that in these countries 25% of deaths of children between one and four years of age are due to drowning. These deaths total more than the number of children who die from measles, polio, whooping cough, tetanus, diphtheria and tuberculosis combined. The report also states that the cost of drowning prevention among children is no more expensive than interventions for these diseases.

"For too long drowning has been a hidden epidemic," said Gordon Alexander, the Director of UNICEF’s Office of Research. "Over the past three decades countries have made strong, continuous progress on infectious disease reduction. However, no impact has been made on drowning deaths. As a result, drowning is emerging as a leading cause of death for children after infancy in the countries surveyed for this report. And yet drowning is off the political radar."

The report finds that the vast majority of the drowning deaths are preventable. They tend to occur within 65 feet of the home and are the result of unsupervised children wandering off and falling into local water hazards. 

The report includes new evidence of the effectiveness of certain prevention programs in Bangladesh, where drowning death rates among children attending village day care centers were reduced by more than 80% as a direct result of having adequate supervision. In addition, drowning death rates for children ages four and older who participated in SwimSafe—swimming and safe rescue training—were reduced by more than 90%.

"There is now solid evidence that interventions are cost effective, sustainable and can be scaled up," said the report’s author Mike Linnan.

"Child Drowning - Evidence for a newly recognized epidemic and its prevention" states that drowning is not a new killer, but has remained undetected as a significant health issue due to counting methods. Previous figures resulted from a heavy reliance on reporting from hospitals and other health facilities. However, most children who drown are never taken to a health facility because their deaths are immediate, because facilities may be located far away from the community, or because those who may report the drowning fear financial repercussions.  Thus, the report argues that deaths from drowning have been significantly underreported. For instance, in Bangladesh there was a more than 300% difference between estimates from the Global Burden of Diseases (2004) report and this study, which interviewed parents in their homes.

UNICEF’s Gordon Alexander said the research suggests governments and development agencies can do more to support drowning prevention interventions by scaling up early childhood education programs, by conducting better mapping of the true prevalence of drowning, and by improving integration ongoing public health, education and disaster risk programs. 

"This report makes clear that there is a serious—and, until now, hidden—problem in the countries surveyed. It also provides evidence of affordable interventions that can save hundreds of thousands of children’s lives. We must now act where we have the evidence, and investigate whether similar underreporting and preventable deaths are happening elsewhere," said Gordon.

About UNICEF

UNICEF has saved more children's lives than any other humanitarian organization in the world. Working in more than 150 countries, UNICEF provides children with health care, clean water, nutrition, education, emergency relief, and more. The U.S. Fund for UNICEF supports UNICEF's work through fundraising, advocacy, and education in the United States.

UNICEF is at the forefront of efforts to reduce child mortality worldwide. There has been substantial progress: the annual number of under-five deaths dropped from more than 12 million in 1990 to 7.6 million in 2010. But still, 21,000 children die each day from preventable causes. Our mission is to do whatever it takes to make that number zero by giving children the essentials for a safe and healthy childhood. For more information, visit www.unicefusa.org.

For additional information, please contact:
Susannah Masur, U.S. Fund for UNICEF, 212.880.9146, smasur@unicefusa.org
Kiní Schoop, U.S. Fund for UNICEF, 212.922.2634, kschoop@unicefusa.org