Recent drownings emphasize need for safety, advocates say

ykandimalla@newsobserver.comJuly 21, 2012 

SWIMLESSON.061412.ANB

Emmanuel Wilder, a volunteer for "The World's Largest Swimming Lesson", a Guinness World Record attempt for the largest, simultaneous swimming lesson ever conducted, helps a group of three to five-year-olds practice their kicks on Thursday, June 14, 2012 at Optimist Pool in Raleigh, N.C.

ASHLEY BLUE — ablue@newsobserver.com

Recent tragic drownings reinforce the need for water-safety education and swimming instruction for young children, advocates say.

The most recent victims, cousins Katherine Rcom, 10, and Johnny Nay, 7, were caught in the currents of the Neuse River near Milburnie Dam on Monday. Earlier that day, a 15-month-old girl drowned in the backyard pool at a Johnston County home.

Drowning is the second-leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 4, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control, and, for those under 14, drowning is second only to motor vehicle crashes in unintentional injury-related deaths. Thirty-seven minors died from drowning in North Carolina in 2010, a 32 percent jump from the previous year, according to the N.C. Child Safety Task Force.

“For some reason, people don’t realize that the water could be a deadly weapon,” said Kim Burgess, executive director of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance. Children need constant adult supervision when near water, as well as basic swimming instruction, she said.

In 2008, two young men drowned in roughly the same area as the cousins, several hundred feet downstream from the Milburnie Dam. Raleigh’s parks and recreation department is awaiting a police report before placing warning signs and markers in the area, Kathy Capps, grants and risk manager for the department, wrote in an email.

Swim lessons

The city of Raleigh teaches about 3,000 children in eight facilities to swim, said Terri Stroupe, city aquatic director. The majority are school-age, but infants as young as six months old can participate in joint lessons with their parents.

In addition to swimming technique, the program teaches children about proper use of life jackets and other safe practices that would be applicable for lakes and rivers, Stroupe said.

More municipalities, including the city of Raleigh, are offering swimming lessons at low cost, with scholarships for lower income families, Burgess said.

Adults monitoring children in the water also should know how to swim or at least know the proper steps to take in case of an emergency, such as throwing objects for children to grab, said Kathleen Reilly, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission spokeswoman. Also, the commission recommends a four-sided fence around backyard pools and spas and gate alarms, she said.

Minorities at risk

A disproportionate number of minorities do not know how to swim, according to a 2010 study by the University of Memphis. Among African-American survey respondents, 69 percent reported low to no swimming skills, compared with 58 percent of Latinos and 42 percent of whites.

The discrepancy has deadly consequences: African-American children ages 5 to 14 are three times as likely to drown as white children of the same age, according to the CDC.

African-American Olympic swimmer Cullen Jones, who swam at N.C. State University, joined USA Swimming’s Make a Splash program to promote swimming instruction in minority communities.

Socioeconomic factors play a part in access to swimming lessons.

The University of Memphis study found that 66 percent of children who qualified for a free or reduced-price school lunch had little or no swimming ability, more than twice the percentage of children who did not qualify.

Race and income aside, the study found that it’s the attitude of adults that influences a child’s ability to swim. Encouragement from parents and family members resulted in more skill, more desire to swim and less fear of drowning.

Kandimalla: 919-829-8917

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