Every year, 3,960 people, or about 11 people per day, die due to drowning in the United States. In 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics listed drowning as the most common cause of death among children one to four years, surpassing congenital disabilities. However, there’s also good news. Unintentional drowning deaths among children declined over the past two decades, but ethnic and racial drowning disparities continue.
Multiple reports released in 2021 show that some racial disparities in drowning deaths have persisted for over 20 years. Specifically, the reports reveal that disparities in drowning death rates are largest among Black, American Indian, and Native Alaskan youth compared to Caucasians, with little or no disparities among Hispanics, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Caucasians.
One CDC report shows that the drowning death rate among American Indian and Alaska Native people under 30 was twice as high as the drowning death rates for Caucasians, while the rate for Black people was 1.5 times that of Caucasians.
Another report, the American Academy of Pediatrics’( AAP) “Prevention of Drowning,” found that from 2014 to 2018, for babies and children under 19, fatal drowning rates were highest among Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native individuals. In addition, the study reported that while most white children died in residential pools, Black youths were most likely to die in a public pool, often at a motel or hotel.
Contributing Factors in Drowning Rate Disparities
The AAP Prevention of Drowning report listed several possible contributing factors. For example, poor swimming skills in children and their parents, lack of swim training during childhood, and lack of lifeguards at motel and hotel pools, particularly among Black children.
One historian, Jeff Wiltse, a history professor at the University of Montana, believes that US history also helps explain why Black children and their parents are less likely to swim. In his 2010 book “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America,” he cites a lack of access to public swimming pools during and after segregation.
Wiltse goes on to say that due to the limited access to swimming facilities and swim lessons, swimming did not become integral to the recreation and sports culture within African American communities.”
Similarly, American Indian and Alaska Native individuals also had minimal exposure to swimming at an early age. Many reservations and Alaskan villages don’t have swimming pools, and although many Alaskan villages are by the water, people rarely swim due to the cold water.
Again, the AAP Prevention of Drowning report writes that “inadequate funding for pools, swimming programs, and lifeguards, as well as the cost associated with swimming lessons, may affect water competency and community resources for low-income populations.”
Solving the Disparity Gap
There’s no easy fix or single strategy to eliminate the drowning rates disparity, but the country can implement practices to help. But first, more research is needed to understand better the factors contributing to drowning disparities.
One older study demonstrated that culturally appropriate interventions do work. In the 2003 study, “Reducing Injuries Among Native Americans: Five Cost-Outcome Analysis,” researchers reported that drowning rates dropped by 53 percent after residents who used Alaska’s Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers as the primary mode of transportation were offered light-weight coats that doubled as floatation devices. However, such interventions require funding.
In the Dec. 2020 study “Adolescent Water Safety Behaviors, Skills, Training and Their Association with Risk-Taking Behaviors and Risk and Protective Factors,” published in Children, recommendations include:
● Ensuring that culturally diverse populations are involved in program development and implementation and providing information for parents in languages other than English.
● Recruiting and retaining lifeguards, swimming instructors, program administrators, and educators for water safety programs that reflect the communities that they aim to reach
Other researchers also suggest including water safety training in school curriculums. In addition, implementing and evaluating community-based interventions, including those promoting basic swimming and water safety skills, among disproportionately affected racial/ethnic groups could help reduce drowning disparities.
Several organizations, such as the American Red Cross, Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCAs, and municipal and neighborhood pools, provide low-cost and even free swimming lessons.
Working Together to Keep Everyone Safe
Drowning is preventable. Learning to swim and learning water safety can keep all children safe. While swimming lessons and water safety won’t magically protect children from drowning, they provide a layer of protection, reducing the risk of drowning for children one to four by 88 percent!Together, we can end drowning and save lives and heartache! Take our Water Safety Challenge to measure your family’s water safety competence and help us provide water safety outreach to schools and community groups to keep all kids safe.