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Sushmita S Preetha
Every year, a silent killer strikes the lives of at least 18,000 children in the country.
It’s so deadly that it’s actually considered the number one cause of death of children over the age of one year – more fatal than diseases like pneumonia, tuberculosis or polio. It’s so swift that a child doesn’t even have the chance to call out for help, and it’s so mundane that no family sees it as a potential threat.
Every day, as many as 50 children die from drowning, according to the Bangladesh Health and Injury Survey (BHIS), a comprehensive survey conducted by UNICEF. Around four times this number nearly drown — over 68,000 near-drowning a year.
But according to experts, the actual number of fatalities is several times greater than actually reported.
Earlier this year, two siblings, seven-year-old Munni and five-year-old Akhi both drowned at the same time as they were playing by the pond near their house. Their parents had never thought that they would lose their precious children right from under their nose.
As in the case of the two siblings, a vast majority of drowning deaths occur within 20 metres of the home, when unsupervised children slip and fall into local water bodies, according to a report by UNICEF and The Alliance for Safe Children (TASC).
Adequate supervision and swimming lessons can significantly reduce child drowning, says the report.
“If only we had taught them to swim – we could have avoided such a catastrophe,” laments their mother. “We live in the village and we think that children will pick up swimming by themselves. We don’t pay special attention to teaching them.”
The report shares evidence of efficacy of prevention interventions designed by UNICEF in partnership with NGOs. For instance, drowning death rates among children attending village crèches were reduced by more than 80 percent as a direct result of having adequate supervision.
Meanwhile, drowning death rates in children 4 years and older who participated in swimming and safe rescue training programme were reduced by more than 90 percent.
UNICEF along with its local and international partners have undertaken initiatives to create social awareness on the issue, give training on how to swim and install bamboo-made fences around the ponds which has significantly reduced drowning related deaths in its working areas.
However, intervention needs to happen on a national scale for large-scale impact, suggest experts.
Despite the alarming statistics, drowning-related deaths have remained undetected as a significant health issue. In fact, child experts argue that the failure to address such deaths can be a major hindrance to Bangladesh fulfilling its Millennium Development Goal of reducing child mortality rate by two-thirds by 2015.
Dr Jahangir Hossain, programme coordinator for the Centre for Injury Prevention and Research, Bangladesh (CIPRB) said that drowning is a “hidden epidemic.”
“Although more children die from drowning in Bangladesh than from any other infectious disease, all our programmes to reduce child mortality focus on infectious diseases,” he said.
State Minister for Health and Family Welfare Mujibur Rahman Fakir told The Daily Star that the government wants to teach swimming to children at the upazila level to reduce the chances of drowning.
“Beyond this, we don’t have any plans or proposals,” he said.
However, experts suggest that government can involve development organisations and relevant ministries to scale up early childhood education/crèche programmes, map the true prevalence of drowning and design a multi-sectoral intervention programme to address the issue.