Most Child Drowning Victims Ignored

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on April 29, 2004
From the WebMD Archives

April 29, 2004 -- Contrary to popular belief, most children who drowned were not alone. A new report shows that 88% of child drowning victims were under the supervision of another person, usually a family member.

Researchers say drowning is the second leading injury-related cause of death for children aged 1 to 14, claiming more than 900 children's lives in the U.S. each year.

The report, released today by the National SAFE KIDS Campaign and Johnson & Johnson, shows better, quality supervision of children in the water is needed.

"Adults need to actively supervise children around water. This means watching and listening at all times and staying close enough to intervene in an emergency," says Martin Eichelberger, MD, director of emergency trauma services at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, and CEO of the National SAFE KIDS Campaign, in a news release.

In addition, researchers say water safety measures, such as personal floatation devices, fencing of pool areas, and teaching children to swim are underutilized.

Child Drowning Dangers Revealed

For the study, researchers examined the circumstances regarding unintentional drowning deaths of 496 children aged 14 years and under, which occurred in 2000 and 2001 in 17 states. These cases represented 89% of all unintentional drowning deaths reported in these areas during that period.

Sixty percent of the drowning deaths reviewed occurred in children aged 4 and younger, 23% among children aged 5 to 9, and 17% among those 10 to 14. Most of the victims were boys (72%).

Researchers found 88% of the drowning victims were under some form of supervision at the time of the incident, 46% were under the care of a parent, and 25% were in the care of another relative. Only 10% were completely unsupervised at the time of drowning.

Most (79%) of the unsupervised drowning victims were older children between the ages of 5 and 14.

In addition, the study showed that 68% of the children were known to be in or near the water at the time of the drowning and 32% were last known to be in another location or around the home.

Parents Often Lax About Swimming Supervision

Researchers also conducted a separate nationwide survey of parents of children 14 and younger about their water-safety knowledge, attitudes, and behavior.

They found that although 94% said they always supervise their children while swimming, many do not devote their full attention to the task. More than one-third report talking to others while supervising their children. Reading, eating, and talking on the phone were also commonly reported.

Most parents (55%) also said they thought there were circumstances where it is OK for a child to swim without adult supervision, such as if they swim with a buddy (31%), if the child is an excellent swimmer (29%), or if they have had several years of swimming lessons (23%).

But experts say drowning is a silent killer that can strike even older, more experienced child swimmers.

Other findings of the report include:

  • Nearly two-thirds (61%) of pool- or spa-owning parents do not have isolation fencing around their pools or spas, and 43% have no self-closing and self-latching gate.
  • Many preteens (kids aged 8 to 12) admit they never wear a life jacket when riding on a personal watercraft (50%), participating in water sports (37%), or on a boat (16%).
  • One in five parents (19%) mistakenly believes that air-filled water wings can protect their child from drowning.

Water Safety Checklist

Researchers recommend that adults take turns serving as the "water watcher," whose sole responsibility is to constantly keep an eye on children in or near the water.

In addition, the National SAFE KIDS Campaigns recommends the following water safety steps for adults to follow to reduce the risk of child drowning:

  • Never leave children alone near water.
  • Tell children never to run, push, or jump on others around water.
  • Learn infant and child CPR.
  • Children should always wear U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets.
  • Inflatable inner tubs and "water wings" are not safety devices.
  • Keep toilet lids down.
  • Keep doors to bathrooms and laundry rooms closed.
  • Children in baby bath seats and rings must be within arm's reach every second.
  • Teach children to swim after age 4.
  • Make sure children swim within designated swimming areas of rivers, lakes, and oceans.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Clear Danger: A National Study of Childhood Drowning and Related Attitudes and Behaviors, April 28, 2004. News release, National SAFE KIDS Campaign.

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