Turning the tides on child drowning
Rebecca Wear Robinson
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Are Words Important? Nonfatal Drowning vs. Near Drowning.

by Rebecca Wear Robinson on February 27, 2013

Last week I talked about the hidden epidemic of nonfatal drowning.  Only problem, I referred to it by the name I had heard most often and also used in regular conversation – ‘near drowning’. My error inspired several people to explain to me why the term ‘nonfatal drowning’ should always be used, and not ‘near drowning’.  The short reason is that any time there is an incident, there are really only two outcomes – either you die (fatal) or you don’t (nonfatal).  ‘Nonfatal’ encompasses the full range of possible ‘didn’t die’ outcomes, from no lasting damage to the many degrees of brain injury or disability which can result from nonfatal drowning.  In 2002 the term ‘nonfatal’ drowning and it’s definition was reached through international consensus and has been adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and others. After some good back-and-forth conversation I was convinced and I took the immediate action of going through my blog and changing the words, but it raises a bigger issue. Does it really matter which words we use when we talk about drowning? If our goal is keeping children safer around water and reducing drowning deaths, the answer is an emphatic YES. Words do matter.

All of us in the drowning prevention community need to commit to being consistent with key words, which means that just because you’ve always used ‘near drowning’, ‘dry drowning’, ‘wet drowning’, or ‘secondary drowning’, you are actually making communicating with the public more difficult and more confusing by not sticking with the words that have been globally adopted, in this case ‘nonfatal drowning’. It’s not even enough for us to begin using the term ‘nonfatal drowning’ consistently, we need to be proactive in getting organizations and the media on board, and then we need to start communicating more effectively with the public. I did a quick Google search on ‘near drowning’ and ended up with 72 pages that had the words ‘near drowning’ in the title. Then I typed in ‘nonfatal drowning’ and ended up with less than one page before the words ‘nonfatal drowning’ ended up in the supporting text on a number of entries instead of the title. Clearly the term ‘nonfatal drowning’ is languishing in regular use and has only been embraced by researchers and a few ‘in the know’ members of the drowning prevention field. This means the communication chain has broken down, because, as the dictionary states, communication is “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs or behavior”. If information is not being exchanged and a common system of symbols (words) is not being used – it’s not communication, you’re just talking to yourself.

I’m sure you’ve all figured out that I love to write (and occasionally talk to myself). I love the creativity and the challenge of finding the exact turn of phrase to explain and inspire, but there is a time and a place for creativity. It is difficult enough for us to communicate effectively with the public (and even each other) about drowning prevention without using 20 different words that all signify ‘nonfatal drowning’. Michael Morris, of the Samuel Morris Foundation writes eloquently about the challenges of communicating with both researchers and the public on the issue of nonfatal drowning.

I challenge all of you who are concerned about water safety and drowning prevention to not just adopt the words ‘nonfatal drowning’ in all of your communications, I challenge you to do one thing this week to help all of us communicate with the public more effectively. The first article when I Google ‘near drowning’ is from the Library of the U.S. National Institute of Health.  Please go to the site, click ‘contact us’ and request that they change the definition to ‘nonfatal drowning’ in accordance with the 2002 international consensus. I did. You can include the link to the WHO fact sheet on drowning as a reference.  If you’re feeling inspired, contact Wikipedia as well.  And then walk the talk, actually use the term ‘nonfatal drowning’. You might have to slip in the phrase, ‘nonfatal drowning, that we used to refer as near drowning’, but if we are all working together, we can make a difference.

You all know that the key to teaching key water safety and swimming skills is repetition, repetition, repetition. This is just another example of how repetition can get the message across. After all, how often do I say ‘one child drowns every minute’? Trust me, I can work that phrase into a casual 5 minute conversation with anyone and the one thing they will remember out of all of those pearls of wisdom coming from my mouth is…..one child drowns every minute.

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