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At a glance: Viet Nam

UNICEF report reveals drowning is a leading cause of child death in parts of Asia

By James Elder

LAP VO DISTRICT, Viet Nam, 22 May 2012 – It is every parent’s nightmare. Their child is missing. Friends and family are frantically searching. Minutes turn to hours.

In parts of Asia, drowning is the biggest killer of children over age 1, and yet it is a hidden tragedy – off the news and political radar.


So it was for Mrs. Nguyen Thu Thao when her 9-year-old son Tong went missing from their village in the south of Viet Nam.

“I was busy working in the brick factory so I couldn’t take care of Tong that day,” Mrs. Thao said. “Tong wanted to go to the computer shop. He asked a friend, who couldn’t go, so he went alone.”

Tong left home sometime in the morning. When his parents discovered he was missing, they started to search, then turned to their neighbours.

“We couldn’t find him, so we asked the neighbours to help us. We said ‘please help us find him, please!’

“My son never went to the water, so no one even thought to look for him at the river. We looked around the house instead. And the neighbourhood. The river was the last place…” Her voice trailed off.

Drowning is a leading killer of children across parts of Asia. So why are highly effective and cost-efficient programmes to reduce drowning deaths not being embraced?


A leading killer of children

While many of the world’s low- and middle-income countries have made strong, continuous progress on reducing the incidence of infectious disease, there has been no impact made on drowning deaths. And yet a new report now finds that there are affordable interventions that could prevent a vast number of these children from drowning.

‘Child Drowning: Evidence for a newly recognized cause of child mortality in low and middle income countries in Asia’ states that drowning is a leading killer of children over age 1 across parts of Asia. It surveyed four countries, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Viet Nam and Thailand, together with two provinces in China – Beijing and Jiangxi.

The report – from UNICEF’s Office of Research and The Alliance for Safe Children (TASC) – found that in these countries one of every four child deaths among children between 1 and 4 years old is due to drowning. Yet the report also points to highly effective and cost-efficient programmes to reduce drowning deaths, programmes that are not being sufficiently embraced.

One programme, in Bangladesh, showed a remarkable 80 per cent reduction in drowning deaths among children attending village crèches, reinforcing the many benefits of early childhood education. Another programme found that drowning death rates were reduced by more than 90 per cent among children 4 years and older who learned survival swimming skills.

© UNICEF Viet Nam/2012
Nguyen Thu Thao mourns her her son, Tong, who went missing from their village in southern Viet Nam. Tong was later found drowned in a nearby river.

Saving hundreds of thousands of lives

Tong couldn’t swim. He’d never been taught. His mother says she would have liked him to have lessons, but none were available. “My husband and I often lie in bed and think about him. We talk about him and we cry a lot.”

Their pain is mirrored in parents across the region. Most drowning deaths among children under age 4 occur within 20 metres of the home and are the result of unsupervised children wandering off and falling into local water hazards.

“This report,” said the Director of UNICEF’s Office of Research, Gordon Alexander, “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.”



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