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Children learning to swim

CDC: Drowning deaths among young children rise; disparities persist

May 14, 2024

Drowning deaths among children ages 1-4 years rose 28% in 2022 compared to 2019, and racial disparities across ages are continuing, according to a new report.

“I am terribly disappointed, but sadly not surprised, to see the increase in drowning rates, especially among 1- to 4-year-olds,” said AAP President Benjamin D. Hoffman, M.D., FAAP. “It is also disheartening to see the persistence of disparities in drowning among minoritized communities. The good news is that we know that implementing layers of protection can help protect children from drowning in and around water. It is important to raise awareness of drowning risks and work to address this tragic epidemic.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analyzed drowning data from the National Vital Statistics System to compare rates before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings were published Tuesday in a Vital Signs report.

About 4,500 people died from drowning each year from 2020 to 2022, about 500 more than in 2019, according to the report. CDC Chief Medical Officer Debra Houry, M.D., M.P.H., said as an emergency physician she saw the devastating impacts of drowning.

“Drowning is a serious public health problem,” she said in a press conference Tuesday. “Drowning can happen to anyone at any time there is access to water. It can be quick, silent and deadly.”

CDC experts said increases in drowning rates may have been linked to public pool closures during the pandemic that limited the availability of swim lessons. When pools reopened, many faced shortages of instructors and lifeguards.

Drowning rates were highest among children ages 1-4 years at 3.1 per 100,000 children in 2022, up 28% compared to 2019. Drowning is the leading cause of death for this group, and 461 deaths were reported in 2022.

Authors also noted a 31% increase in the drowning rate among people ages 15-24 years from 2019 to 2020, but rates for this group in 2021 and 2022 were close to pre-pandemic levels.

The AAP recommends layers of protection for children, including constant adult supervision, swim lessons, life jackets, pool fencing and CPR training. Parents also should be aware that alcohol is a significant risk factor for drowning in teens and young adults. The CDC recommends people of any age avoid alcohol before and during swimming and boating.

Across all ages, the highest drowning rates were among people who are American Indian/Alaska Native or Black, according to the CDC report. For people who are Black, drowning rates increased 28% in 2021 compared to 2019. Drowning rates among people who are Hispanic increased 25% from 2019 to 2022.

Just over half of U.S. adults have never taken a swim lesson, including nearly two-thirds of Black adults and three-fourths of Hispanic adults, according to the report.

Some people face social and structural barriers to swim lessons, including high costs and lack of availability, according to Tessa Clemens, Ph.D., a health scientist in the CDC’s Division of Injury Prevention and an author of the report. There also is a history of racial segregation that may have influenced attitudes toward swimming among people who are Black.

The CDC encouraged government officials to make sure swim lessons are available and affordable by partnering with groups like the YMCA and Red Cross. They also should ensure access for people with disabilities, hire diverse aquatics staff and adapt programs to community needs.

“Everyone should have access to basic swimming and water safety skills training,” Dr. Clemens said. “Addressing social and structural barriers that limit access to this training could advance health equity and reduce drowning.”




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