In August, a ceremony was held in Dhaka to launch the International Drowning Research Centre, Bangladesh (IDRC – B). This is the first centre of its kind set up to carry out research and develop effective ways of preventing children from drowning. A World Conference on the issue is also scheduled for 2011, to be held in Danang, Vietnam.
Globally, drowning is a major cause of death amongst children. Even in a developed country like the USA, drowning is the second highest cause of accidental death in children under 14. And among those aged between 5 and 14, the USA’s African-American children are 3.1 times more likely to drown. It isn’t hard to establish the reason. When surveyed, around 70% of African-American children say they have not been taught to swim.
In some developing countries, there is now an epidemic of drowning deaths, because most youngsters are not taught to swim. In Bangladesh, where the IDRC has been set up, more than 18,000 children lose their lives each year in water. Drowning is now the leading cause of death among children between the ages of 1 to 4 years, higher than from diseases like measles, cholera, diarrhoea or pneumonia. Bangladesh is one of the wettest countries in the world, with frequent flooding and much of its population lives near lakes or one of the country’s 700 rivers. The director of the IDRC says that most child deaths happen within 20 metres of a family’s home. The tragedies mainly occur between 9am and 2pm, when mothers or carers are busy with household chores or making lunch, leaving children to play unsupervised. One such child was 16-month old Sumaiya, who wandered off earlier this year while her mother was working on a handloom and drowned in a nearby pond. Her parents are still not over the shock.
The IDRC hopes to create awareness among parents and communities of this growing issue and provide advice on ways to reduce the risks, not only in Bangladesh but also in other countries in the region. Because surveys have shown that deaths from drowning now account for the highest number of child deaths in 7 Asian countries.
As well as showing how children can be taught to swim in lakes and ponds by cordoning off safe areas for them to learn, the centre will also promote the need for people to be learn cardio-pulmonary resuscitation and basic rescue skills. Officials are also keen to raise awareness that the construction of fencing around bodies of water near residential areas can help protect toddlers. One area where lives have already been saved is Mirpur, on the outskirts of Dhaka. Here the children of the slums often play around a large lake, where many children have drowned in the past. Anis is eight and remembers a friend who died after falling in the water. But recently the local children were taught swimming and safety lessons. Anis is pleased he and his friends can go to the lake on hot days, because “now I know I can swim”.