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Drowning prevention - a new global agenda

child watching people and boat on water

Photo credit: WPRO/WHO

Published: 25 July 2023

The global challenge of drowning prevention

Drowning has caused over 2.5 million deaths in the last decade. 90% of these deaths are in low and middle income countries (LMICs) and more than half of these are among children and young people. Despite this toll, drowning has been neglected as a global health issue.

World Drowning Prevention Day has been established on 25 July each year to raise awareness of drowning. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “The human, social and economic toll of these losses is intolerably high, and entirely preventable.”

In May 2023, the 76th World Health Assembly adopted its first ever resolution on drowning prevention. The resolution, ‘Accelerating Action on Global Drowning Prevention’ urges member states to develop national policies and programmes to prevent drowning.

Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of drowning in the world, and it is the leading cause of deaths among infants and children. The risk of drowning in rural areas is twice that of cities due to daily use of rivers, ponds and ditches - all natural drowning hazards.

Mothers and other caregivers have a constant challenge to supervise small children while also working, cooking and other household chores. This means that toddlers are often cared for by other young siblings.

NIHR funding to prevent infants drowning in Bangladesh

NIHR recently announced the launch of a new £1.6M project Drowning Prevention for newly mobile infants under 2 years in Bangladesh funded through the NIHR Global Health Research Programme.

The new project is jointly led by Dr Aminur Rahman from the Centre for Injury Prevention and Research, Bangladesh (CIPRB) and Professor Edwin van Teijlingen from the University of Bournemouth. Other project partners are the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), the University of Southampton and the University of the West of England.

Over the past 15 years, CIPRB has researched and implemented several effective drowning prevention solutions focussed on children. These include a successful community day care model that reduces drowning rates in preschool children.

However, their research shows that families are reluctant to allow children under 2 years to attend day care. The new project will identify and test better ways to prevent newly mobile infants under 2 years old from drowning. It is interdisciplinary and will use a human-centred design approach.

Dr. Aminur Rahman, Deputy Executive Director of CIPRB and project co-director, said:

"It is exciting to be working with these communities to identify ways to protect the most vulnerable infants. By working in two distinct districts, we hope to better understand how to roll out successful interventions in different circumstances and environments."

The team is now engaging with at-risk communities in the north and south of Bangladesh to:

  • build the skills needed by communities and research partners to undertake research
  • understand the challenges of keeping infants and toddlers safe from drowning
  • identify and prioritise possible solutions with designers and community members
  • trial the best solutions in communities and evaluate them on use and maintenance

How this research can change policy and save lives

The findings from this three-year project will inform Bangladesh’s national drowning prevention programme run by the Ministry of Women & Children's Affairs. CIPRB’s innovative approaches to drowning prevention for children have been recognised by the WHO as evidence-based and cost effective. They have been cited in global guidelines and UN resolutions.

Findings will also be relevant to preventing child drowning in other South-East Asian countries, where over 30% of global drowning deaths occur. Throughout, they will share the findings with local authorities, national and international stakeholders.

The importance of this new award was highlighted earlier this month at a Commonwealth briefing on global drowning prevention co-hosted by the RNLI and the Royal Life Saving Society.

Dr. David Meddings, technical lead for global drowning prevention at WHO, said:

"Methodologically rigorous studies are a critical component to furthering the evidence base for global drowning prevention. This initiative provides an important and much needed addition to efforts to sustain and deepen progress on global efforts to address an overlooked global public health problem."

The award was recently announced as one of five new projects that address the global burden of injuries and accidents, and urgent and emergency care.

NIHR is funding a number of other projects In Bangladesh through its global health research programmes. These span respiratory health, preventing deaths from acute poisoning, depression, mental health and non-communicable diseases. Details of these are published in NIHR Open Data.

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