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The ‘unheard of’ epidemic killing children in Bangladesh

This week, Vietnam plays host to the World Conference on Drowning Prevention. 400 delegates (representing 50 countries) are expected at the Conference, which is being presented by the Royal Life Saving Society Australia and The Alliance for Safe Children.

Discussions will be held on ways to prevent some of the 380,000 deaths from drowning which occur each year worldwide. The risk is highest in low and middle-income nations, with Asian countries accounting for over 95 per cent of unintentional drownings. This is mainly because the majority of people in these countries are not taught to swim. Children, particularly those aged 1-4, are especially vulnerable and the situation is gravest in countries with large areas covered by water.

One such country is Bangladesh, where much of the population lives near to lakes or one of the 700 rivers which flow through the land. In Bangladesh, more than 18,000 children lose their lives each year in water. This makes drowning the leading cause of death among Bangladeshi children between the ages of 1-4 years, higher than the mortality from diseases like measles, cholera, diarrhoea or pneumonia.

Programmes in Bangladesh have been set up to address this huge problem. One such programme is the introduction of swim-safety courses for children. As well as being taught about the risks of water, children are given swimming lessons in the safety of fenced-off sections of local lakes and ponds. These are often in areas where children go to play anyway. Research from Bangladesh suggests this kind of programme is an extremely cost-effective way to save lives, with lessons costing around 13 dollars per child, equivalent to the kind of money spent on some childhood vaccines.

The Conference will focus on research papers being presented by Bangladeshi organisations on strategies being adopted in their country to reduce deaths in the water. Information will be presented by a number of contributors, including the International Drowning Research Centre (IDRC) based in Bangladesh. Participants are also expected to discuss the setting up of better worldwide data collection on drowning cases. Though data suggests over 380,000 deaths worldwide, this figure is believed to be a conservative estimate. The actual number could be as high as a million, which is why some experts refer to the problem as an “epidemic” and “the biggest killer [of children] that no one has heard of”.

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