Turning the tides on child drowning
Rebecca Wear Robinson
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Does Your Child’s Life Count?

by Rebecca Wear Robinson on January 23, 2013

What is your child’s life worth to you? More than your own I’m guessing. Children should not die. But they do. If your child dies, the pain is overwhelming. You want the importance of your child’s existence acknowledged. Recognition of a life lived and the acknowledgement of a person’s existence is a primal need. A funeral, an obituary in the newspaper, condolences and the healing words of friends and family, donations to an organization in honor of a life lost too early, the cause of death being officially counted, a death certificate providing the official closing chapter to the book started with a birth certificate. These are important and healing ways society has developed to acknowledge and recognize the importance of each individual life lived. But what if your child’s death was not officially acknowledged? How would you feel if your child’s existence was not even formally recognized?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 6.9 million children under the age of five died in 2011.  That is almost 19,000 children every day or 13 children every minute. Half of those deaths are due to conditions that are preventable or treatable. Pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria account for 36% of deaths. Being born and pre-term complications account for 23% of deaths. The other 41%? ‘Other causes’. Drowning gets lumped in with ‘other causes’, not because it is a smaller problem, but because the magnitude of child drowning is not accurately measured. A staggering 59% of WHO countries do not identify drowning as a cause of death.

Does it matter if a child’s death is not counted? Emphatically YES. Of course it matters to the family of the child and the loss is privately mourned, but to not accurately count the cause of death has enormous policy and funding implications. After all, if no one knows there is a problem, why look for a solution and why allocate human and financial resources to the solution? The big money in public health and safety go to causes that are documented – like pneumonia, diarrhea, and malaria. We must work towards collecting accurate data on drowning so that we can attract the same level of attention and funding for programs that are proven to reduce drowning deaths.

The WHO knows that drowning is the 3rd leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide, and they also know that their numbers may be significantly underestimated. Of course they are underestimated! If 59% of members aren’t reporting drowning as a cause of death and those countries are generally the ones where drowning occurs at a high rate due to access to water and other variables, it is accurate to assume drowning rates are much higher, and quite possibly high enough to merit a ‘category’ in the WHO reports, not just be lumped in with ‘other causes’. There are official efforts being made to address the issue. The International Life Saving Federation has been working for many years on the issue.  The Alliance for Safe Children and UNICEF are also addressing the problem.  The issue is huge and they need our help. Several databases have been launched to capture specific types of drowning deaths – global deaths in pools started by the National Swimming Pool Foundation,  centralized source for UK-based deaths established by a consortium of agencies.  But maybe we need to explore other ways of collecting data. Maybe we need to let the people speak. A mother in the UK began a drowning-tracking map after her son drowned.  We need more initiatives like this one. We need to find innovative ways of capturing and reporting accurate data around the world. I think that enlisting parents and families to report deaths by drowning as a way of honoring their loved ones is an important way forward. Verifiable, quality self-reporting is the future. Using social media we can reach so many people. We can convince people that their voice can be heard, that their loss is acknowledged, that their loved one did matter. Look at how social media has been used to topple governments and start protests over the treatment of women. We need to harness that power and passion to raise the profile of drowning. Yes, the data needs to be ‘good’, it needs to be verifiable by government agencies, but we can’t only rely on government agencies to help us gather the data. If we want it done, we need to help do it ourselves.

What can you do? You love your child. You want their life counted, you want their existence to matter. Help other parents to be granted the same basic right of having their child count. Please support efforts to count drowning deaths accurately. Each child who drowns deserves to be counted.

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