World Health Organization Warns Of ‘Hidden Childhood Killer’

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/BIKAS DAS
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/BIKAS DAS

Drowning takes more than 370,000 young lives annually across the globe, making it one of the 10 leading causes of death worldwide and a silent childhood killer, according to a recent World Health Organization (WHO) report. The WHO’s findings have prompted calls to reduce these numbers, especially among young people under the age of 25 living in the African, Southeast Asian, and Western Pacific regions.

“Efforts to reduce child mortality have brought remarkable gains in recent decades but they have also revealed otherwise hidden childhood killers,” WHO director-general Dr. Margaret Chan told BBC News. “Drowning is one. This is a needless loss of life. Action must be taken by national and local governments to put in place the simple preventative measures articulated by the WHO.”

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While drowning accounts for less than 10 percent of injury related deaths worldwide, 96 percent of those incidences often involve children of color. And experts say the numbers outlined in WHO’s recently compiled report could be much higher, since the report didn’t include data from natural disasters and other types of drowning deaths.

The same racial disparities hold true in a host of industrialized nations, including the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African-American children between the ages of 5 and 14 drown three times more often than their white counterparts. A May report by the government agency found that swimming pools often become the scene where these unfortunate events unfold.

Factors that widen the racial disparity include access, or the lack thereof, to swimming pools, the lack of desire to swim, and the choice of water-related recreational activities. In certain cases, African Americans often reported a lack of swimming ability more often than their peers in other racial groups. That’s why experts say that proper swimming training, especially in a child’s early years, greatly reduces the likelihood of death in the water.

Other techniques that can prevent drowning deaths include teaching basic skills, creating barriers — fences, for example — around outdoor pools, encouraging youngsters to wear life jacks, having more lifeguards, and training individuals in CPR to use in case of emergency. The recent WHO report also called for setting regulations for boats and ferries.

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Michael Bloomberg, former New York City mayor and founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies, a sponsor of the report, said that the data could help world leaders determine what steps to take to tackle a problem that has gone unaddressed globally.

“I believe that you can’t manage what you don’t measure and there’s never been a comprehensive effort to measure drowning around the world until now,” Bloomberg told BBC News. “The more evidence we can gather, the better we’ll be able to tailor our prevention efforts.”

If world leaders are looking for inspiration, they might want to look at the work of some organizations, including United Kingdom-based nonprofit Nile Swimmers, that have already taken steps to help people of color around the world feel comfortable in water. Since 2007, the nonprofit has hosted 10-day sessions in Sudan to teach natives the basics of swimming, a skill of great use to them since they often use large bodies of water to fish, travel, and carry out daily chores. Nile Swimmers recently expanded its operations to Uganda.