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We must give our kids a fighting chance around water

The recent spate of drowning deaths – seven Quebec toddlers have died in backyard pools in three weeks and three children drowned in Southern Ontario lakes on the weekend – is sickening.

But more sickening still has been the lame response.

Traumatic injury (including drowning) is a massive burden to the health system, and the economy. Yet, injury prevention is one of the most woefully neglected aspects of our health system.

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For one, we have built a sickness-care system instead of a health-care system.

Worse yet, we have, in Canada, a nihilistic attitude about injury that can be summarized in two words: Stuff happens. (Or its more popular scatological equivalent.) We dismiss deaths like child drownings as tragic "accidents" and comfort ourselves with some tsk-tsking about the failure of other parents to supervise their kids.

We dismiss spikes in injuries, like the current wave of Quebec drownings, as a statistical anomaly, a by-product of a fierce heat wave – as if a more steady, under-the-radar level of death is somehow more acceptable.

The grim reality is that about 60 children drown each summer – the equivalent of two primary school classrooms.

These deaths should stick in our craw because every one of them is a societal failure. That's because virtually every child drowning is preventable, if not predictable.

One of the most grievous – and common – examples of this is toddlers dying because pools lack basic safety precautions such as fences, functioning gate latches and the like.

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When Debbie Friedman, the trauma director at the Montreal Children's Hospital, suggested that fences should be mandatory around every pool in every municipality, it sparked a flurry of angry letters and calls to local media outlets.

Such a rule was deemed to be oppressive, an unjust tax on pool owners and, of course, many claimed haughtily that such a tragedy would never happen to them because they are good parents who supervise their children. (Never mind that in almost every case, parents seemed to be nearby, if momentarily distracted.) Libertarianism and finger-pointing are not going to stop the carnage, nor is turning a blind eye to it.

Injury prevention is both an individual and collective responsibility, especially when it comes to the most vulnerable in society, children.

Is demanding that every pool be behind a fence an imposition, financial and otherwise? Yes, but it is also a reasonable expectation and a fair trade-off for the privilege of owning a pool.

There are roughly 400 drownings in Canada each year. Almost half occur during aquatic (swimming) and non-aquatic (playing near water) activities. Boating/fishing is the single biggest source of drowning, and people plunging through ice on snowmobiles is another – with excessive alcohol consumption a driving factor in both categories – but those are topics for another day. The good news is that drowning deaths have fallen considerably in the last couple of decades, particularly among children.

Those who harken back to the good old days when kids were left to roam free and swim in the neighbour's backyard pool or the lake at the cottage should not lose sight of the fact that they were far more deadly days.

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We don't have to lock children up in cages to make them injury-proof, but we do need to give them a fighting chance, especially around water.

Drowning remains the single biggest cause of death in children under the age of four in North America (aside from birth defects). Drowning is also the biggest killer of boys age 5 to 14 worldwide. Boys are about four times more likely to drown than girls.

When you throw adults into the mix, more than half a million people drown worldwide each year.

Aside from gruesome cataloging of statistics, there's a lot more that could be done to prevent drownings, particularly for children.

A few years back, Safe Kids Canada (which is now part of a new group called Parachute – Leaders in Injury Prevention) published a document about drowning prevention in which it explained that there is no single solution.

Rather, it said "five layers of protection" are required, including:

Actively supervising children: Research shows that 40 per cent of drownings occur when an adult is not present. Contrary to popular belief, drowning occurs silently, so keeping kids within eyesight (not earshot) is key;

Create barriers: that means four-sided fencing at least 1.2 metres high around pools, self-closing and self-latching gates and pool alarms, along with strict rules about access to water. It is estimated that 70 per cent of child drownings could be prevented with proper barriers;

Use life jackets: especially for young children playing near water: Personal flotation devices are not a substitute for supervision, but they can keep kids afloat for precious moments. And, remember, water wings are not PFDs, they are toys;

Teach kids to swim: However, swimming ability alone does not prevent drowning, especially in kids under 5. Water-safety rules are often the most important part of swim lessons;

Train adults in CPR, first aid and water rescue: It's not enough to supervise. Adults must be able to intervene in an emergency, yet only a minority of Canadians have strong swimming skills and know CPR.

Each of these five layers is not enough on its own, These five layers are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they need to be embraced as a prevention package.

There is very little cost to implement these measures but, they do require effort.

Not as much effort, mind you, as pulling a dead child from the bottom of a pool.

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About the Author
Public health reporter

André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987. He is also the author of three bestselling books.André has received much acclaim for his writing. More


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