Toddlers at highest risk of drowning

9 December 2015

A new report by the Royal Life Saving Society WA (RLSSWA) reveals that drowning remains the leading cause of preventable death in children under five years in Western Australia. The report focuses on drowning in children aged 0-4 years in WA and reveals that between 2003 and 2013, 40 children under five years of age lost their life as a result of drowning, the highest rate of any age group in the state. Over the decade there was a 22% decrease in deaths but a 40% increase in drowning-related hospitalisations. 326 children were admitted to hospital following a non-fatal drowning incident and the hospitalisation rate among children aged 0-4 years was more than seven times greater than any other age group.

The report, released today at the summer launch of RLSSWA's Keep Watch toddler drowning prevention program, reveals that water around the home continues to pose the greatest risk to children. 90% of fatal drowning cases occurred in and around a child's own home or that of a family member or friend. Home pools accounted for 40% of drowning deaths, with baths the second most common location (17.5% of incidents). Other common drowning locations included fishponds, paddling pools and farm dams. 

Lauren Nimmo, Senior Manager, Health Promotion & Research at RLSSWA said "WA's pool fencing legislation is among the strongest in the country but pool barriers are only effective when they are correctly used and maintained. The main issues identified in the report included gates being left propped open, gates not being self-closing or self-latching and gaps being present beneath the fence or gate that a child was able to slip through. We encourage all pool owners to take the time to check their pool fences and fix any problems ahead of summer."

In all cases examined in the report there was a lapse in adult supervision, ranging from two minutes to two hours. Lauren Nimmo said "the majority of drowning deaths occurred following 5-10 minutes of absent supervision. In many cases they occurred in the short time when parents were performing household chores  or children had been left temporarily in the care of an older sibling. It doesn't take long for a tragedy to occur and parents with young children need to be aware of the potential consequences."

Speaking at the launch, Dr Gervase Chaney, Executive Director at Princess Margaret Hospital for Children says that the burden of non-fatal drowning in children often goes unrecognised. "At this time of year we see far too many young children coming through our Emergency Department as a result of preventable drowning. Although many of these children are rescued in time, unfortunately some will be affected by life-long injuries. I urge all parents and others who care for children to reduce the risk of drowning by ensuring domestic pools have effective fences and gates; and young children only have access to other bodies of water when supervised" said Dr Chaney.  

Males were almost twice as likely to drown as females. Both death and hospitalisation rates were similar in regional and metropolitan areas. Aboriginal children were highly over-represented, accounting for one-fifth of all toddler drowning deaths in the state. Drowning deaths were most likely to occur during the spring months (40%), although half of all hospitalisations occurred during summer. This disparity is potentially due to greater exposure to water and increased vigilance from parents and carers during summer, leading to more timely rescues.

The review also reveals that children aged 0-2 years accounted for 85% of all fatal drowning cases in the age group. Lauren Nimmo said "children under the age of two are particularly vulnerable to drowning as they are quickly developing skills and mobility that can allow them to access water unnoticed. Unfortunately children at this age are still highly dependent on adult supervision and are unlikely to be able to save themselves if they get into trouble around water."

This summer, the Keep Watch program will continue to raise awareness of drowning risks and educate parents and carers about the simple steps they can take to keep their children safe from drowning. The program is generously supported by the Department of Health WA and Principal Partner BHP Billiton to deliver an annual TV and online campaign, provide presentations to parents and carers, attend events and distribute a range of resources to the community. 

Lauren Nimmo said "It's positive that we have seen a significant reduction in toddler drowning in Western Australia over the years thanks to a combination of education, awareness and legislation. However, there are still too many families affected by drowning and it is vital that we continue to remind the community of the risks and the actions they can take. Everyone who cares for children needs to keep close watch around water, prevent children's access to pools and other water bodies and enrol in a CPR course."

The full report can be found here.

The video below outlines the key findings of the report and the Keep Watch messages.