When one thinks of a public health crisis, maybe the mind goes to the incidence of AIDS, the measles outbreak in Disneyland or maybe even obesity. Rarely does one think of drowning as a public health issue, yet over 350,000 people die every year due to drowning.

In Bangladesh, this problem is particularly severe. Drowning accounts for 43 percent of all deaths among children between one and four years of age, making drowning the leading cause of death among children.

In a region crisscrossed by many rivers and frequented by monsoons and cyclones, flooding is a constant concern during the rainy season. As expected, the death rate rises rapidly during these rainy months. Many children drown close to their homes when adults leave them unsupervised to go to work. Many children die because they do not know how to swim.

Bangladesh is hastening to control the problem. In collaboration with UNICEF, the Alliance for Safe Children and the Royal Life Saving Society Australia, an NGO named, SwimSafe, is providing training to community swimming instructors. These instructors teach children to swim and float, to be confident in the water, to save someone who is drowning and to identify life-threatening water hazards. By using ponds that are in close proximity to schools and health centers as makeshift pools, SwimSafe is able to generate interest in the program and has taught more than 130,000 children in Bangladesh water survival skills. The Bangladeshi government has now made swimming compulsory in schools.

The Johns Hopkins Injury Research Unit at the Bloomberg School of Public Health is working on evaluating the effectiveness of two initiatives on reducing drowning in Bangladesh. One is providing adult supervision by enrolling families in community daycare centers and the other is implementing playpens that would effectively restrict the ability of children to access water hazards. To date, nearly 30,000 children have been enrolled in 2,000 daycare centers and playpens are being designed and manufactured locally. In this effort, they are being supported by WHO and Bloomberg Philanthropies which has committed $10 million to this cause.

Apart from initiatives like these, Bangladesh needs approaches that can reduce the flooding that is endemic to the country. The WHO provides five recommendations for national efforts that can reduce the impact of floods including better land use and conservation of wetlands and forests. Without a doubt, improving infrastructure such as developing better irrigation methods, safer bridges and stagnant water control will contribute significantly.

Most importantly, early warnings of impending floods and disaster conditions delivered in accessible ways to the local population can alert them to take appropriate precautions. Bangladesh also needs rapid response methods for when disaster strikes. International cooperation by neighboring countries will go a long way to help provide disaster relief to a region that experiences severe storms and cyclones on a regular basis.

Greater attention given to drowning as a real public health crisis will bring in more funding and solutions to this problem that claims thousands of young lives everyday.

– Mithila Rajagopal

Sources: BBC, Bloomberg 1, Bloomberg 2, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, SwimSafe, WHO
Photo: Flickr