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Sobering data on drownings

Compared to their peers in the region, Cambodian children are much more likely to die by drowning, according to new estimates from the World Health Organization.

The WHO, which provided country-specific statistics alongside its new Global Report on Drowning, released yesterday, estimates that the risk of drowning is about twice as high for Cambodian children in the first 15 years of life as it is for kids of the same age in other low- to middle-income countries in the region, including Vietnam, Laos and the Philippines, among several others.

One major aim of the report is to encourage prevention efforts aimed at children, such as swimming lessons, day care centres and the installation of barriers close to bodies of water.

Studies of the problem show that drowning often occurs when children wander off unsupervised, falling into ponds, lakes, rivers and ditches filled with flood water.

In a statement accompanying the report, WHO director-general Dr Margaret Chan said successful efforts to reduce child mortality in recent decades have revealed “hidden childhood killers”.

“Drowning is one. This is a needless loss of life,” Chan explained.

More than 90 per cent of drownings takes place in low- and middle-income countries, according to the report, with the highest rates in the Western Pacific, Southeast Asian and African regions. In WHO classifications, Cambodia is one of 37 countries in its Western Pacific region grouping.

The report also says that the overwhelming majority of drowning incidents happen in countries in which the people have “close daily contact with water for work, transport and agriculture”, a description that applies to the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians.

As data collection on drowning is not as thorough as it is in many areas of public health, the rate for Cambodia and other countries may be much higher than believed. But even at the conservative estimate, comparisons with better-performing economies in the region are stark. Among children under 15 in Australia, statistics from 2012 show, there were 43 drowning deaths out of a population in that age range of 4.37 million. For the same range in Cambodia, there were 723 deaths for 4.64 million children.

Jonathon Passmore, who works on violence and injury prevention out of the WHO’s Manila office, said in an email that “looking at the risk factors for drowning we can see that many of these are very prevalent in Cambodia, particularly in rural areas”.

These issues include “high community access to water, both permanent water bodies and seasonal flooding, limited mechanisms for appropriate supervision of children while parents work, very low prevalence of swimming skills, a reliance on water transport, often in small, unstable, informal craft, the majority of which would not have life jackets or personal flotation devices for all occupants”, Passmore said. “The number of community members and bystanders trained in effective rescue and resuscitation techniques is also very limited.”

With support from the WHO, officials in Kampong Chhnang’s Kampong Leng district implemented in 2009 a kind of day care centre for children whose parents were off fishing.

Ty Disiphen, deputy police chief of Kampong Leng district, said that most families in the area live off the river.

“They live in the floating houses or the small homes on the riverbank that face riverbank collapses and flooding during the rainy season,” he said, adding that children and the elderly are usually left without assistance during working hours. “Some of them have slipped down into the river and drowned.”

He said education efforts have led to a slight reduction in drowning deaths so far this year, with 17 cases – including four children – a slight decrease from 19 at the same point last year.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KHOUTH SOPHAK CHAKRYA

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