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Drowning in numbers

Ha Noi, 23 May 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 such drowning deaths are not being sufficiently embraced.

Child Drowning: Evidence for a newly recognized cause of child mortality in low and middle income countries in Asia surveyed four countries (Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam & 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, based in Florence, Italy, finds that in these countries one of every four child deaths (1-4 years) are due to drowning - more than the number who die from measles, polio, whooping cough, tetanus, diphtheria and tuberculosis combined. In Viet Nam, drowning occurs at about the same rate as other causes of death until age 5, when drowning rates begin to increase. The research 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 killer,” 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 (1 year) 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 20 metres of the home and are the result of unsupervised children wandering off and falling into local water hazards. 

The report includes new evidence into prevention interventions in an operational research program in Bangladesh and Viet Nam, showing:
• Drowning death rates among children attending village crèches were reduced by more than 80 percent as a direct result of having adequate supervision.
• Drowning death rates in children 4 years and older who participated in SwimSafe (swimming and safe rescue training) were reduced by more than 90 percent.
• Success in child drowning prevention requires multisectoral collaboration and it is critical to build the community and government capacity to implement and monitor drowning prevention programmes.

The UNICEF-TASC report 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 numbers have been markedly underreported.
UNICEF’s Gordon Alexander said the research suggests governments and development agencies can do more to support drowning prevention interventions through scaling up early childhood education/crèche programmes, and with improved integration with ongoing public health, education and disaster risk programmes, together with better mapping of the true prevalence of drowning.

“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.” 

In response to the increasing drowning rates in the last few years, UNICEF Viet Nam has been supporting the government of Viet Nam in several key areas of child drowning prevention including policy development and enforcement of water safety legislation and regulations, raising public awareness about the risks of drowning and effective preventive measures; home and environmental modifications to minimize exposure to drowning, particular for children and importantly, the development of survival swimming skills in children.

“In late 2011, massive floods in southern Viet Nam had caused an alarming number of child fatalities, most of them due to drowning. It called for greater focus on drowning prevention”, Ms. Lotta Sylwander, Representative of UNICEF Viet Nam, said. “We are glad to see that the government and mass organisations have recognised the importance of drowning in Viet Nam and the need to further strengthen prevention efforts. The government has developed a national programme on child injury prevention for 2011-2015, where prevention of child drowning is highlighted as an important component. In April 2012, the government also launched an inter-sectoral plan on drowning prevention covering the same period. We believe that with these plans in place, we will prevent more children’s deaths from drowning.”
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Read the full report – “Child Drowning: Evidence for a newly recognized cause of child mortality in low and middle income countries in Asia” download from the UNICEF Office of Research website

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Twitter: @Unicefinnocenti #ChildDrowning:

For further information contact:

  • Ms. Sandra Bisin, UNICEF Viet Nam, + 84.972.765.050,
    Ms. Nguyen Thi Thanh Huong, UNICEF Viet Nam, +84.904.154.678,



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