High rates of drowning: Why is there a racial disparity in drowning deaths?


Congress granted a national charter to the American Red Cross to perform emergency services, and to teach people to swim, to prevent drowning, as part of the disaster-readiness services of the organization originally founded in 1881.  Many of us got our first swim lessons under the direction of a Water Safety Instructor trained and certified by the Red Cross; some of us went on to get WSI certification to teach swimming and lifesaving.

But for some reasons, these drowning prevention measures are not working to save the lives of African Americans as well as for everybody else.

NPR’s Talk of the Nation carried a story about the problem in today’s edition (available on-line here, a 30-minute story):

Swimming Disparity
The drowning deaths of six black teens in Louisiana renewed questions about the long-standing disparity between those Americans who can swim and those who can’t. Neither the teens who drowned nor their families who watched from shore could swim.  According to the CDC the rate of fatal drowning is highest among African-American children ages 5-14 (three times that of white children in the same age range) due to a combination of social, economic and cultural issues. Neal Conan talks about what causes the dangerous disparity in swimming, and how to recognize and assist someone who’s drowning.

Drowning rates run even higher for Native Americans.

Race disparities in drownings in the U.S.; AP chart via NPR

Race disparities in drownings in the U.S.; AP chart via NPR

More than 30 people have died in drowning accidents already this year in Texas alone — victims of all races — after a terrible 2009 record.  About 3,500 people die in the U.S. from drowning every year.  Most of these accidental deaths could have been prevented with the use of personal flotation devices, and may have been preventable had the people involved had basic drownproofing, or swimming, or lifesaving instruction.

(Remember this mantra:  Reach; throw; row; go.  Only after attempts to reach for the victim, perhaps with a pole, or throw a flotation device, or row a boat, should anyone including a well-trained lifesaver, go into the water to retrieve someone drowning.)

Where can people get instruction on how to prevent drownings?  Red Cross courses are offered at countless community pools — those pools are, alas, generally the first services cut back when cities and counties trim budgets, as they have been trimming since the start of our nation’s financial woes in 2008.    Other good sources of anti-drowning instruction are the YMCA, Girl Scouts, and Boy Scouts.

I received lifesaving instruction at community pools, and in Red Cross sanctioned programs at Brigham Young University and the University of Utah.  I earned the Swimming, Lifesaving, Rowing and Canoeing merit badges in Scouting, and I taught rowing and canoeing at a Scout camp and another camp, and I taught Red Cross Lifesaving for several years as a WSI.

Even in Dick Schwendiman’s astounding Advanced First Aid course at the University of Utah, I didn’t learn the following stuff about drowning, however (another Red Cross certified course).  Regardless whether you can get a lifesaving course, or if you’ve had one, you need to go read Mario Vittone’s stuff on drowning, and how to recognize when someone in the water needs help:

Button, Drowning doesn't look like drowning

The new captain jumped from the cockpit, fully dressed, and sprinted through the water. A former lifeguard, he kept his eyes on his victim as he headed straight for the owners who were swimming between their anchored sportfisher and the beach. “I think he thinks you’re drowning,” the husband said to his wife. They had been splashing each other and she had screamed but now they were just standing, neck-deep on the sand bar. “We’re fine, what is he doing?” she asked, a little annoyed. “We’re fine!” the husband yelled, waving him off, but his captain kept swimming hard. ”Move!” he barked as he sprinted between the stunned owners. Directly behind them, not ten feet away, their nine-year-old daughter was drowning. Safely above the surface in the arms of the captain, she burst into tears, “Daddy!”

How did this captain know – from fifty feet away – what the father couldn’t recognize from just ten? Drowning is not the violent, splashing, call for help that most people expect. The captain was trained to recognize drowning by experts and years of experience. The father, on the other hand, had learned what drowning looks like by watching television. If you spend time on or near the water (hint: that’s all of us) then you should make sure that you and your crew knows what to look for whenever people enter the water. Until she cried a tearful, “Daddy,” she hadn’t made a sound.

You’ll find that life-saving article at Mario Vittone’s blog on boater safety. If you are a teen ager, a parent, a grandparent, or you ever swim, you need to read that article.  (Thanks to P. Z. Myers at Pharyngula for pointing the way to that post.)

Will you help save a life, please?

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One Response to High rates of drowning: Why is there a racial disparity in drowning deaths?

  1. mpb says:

    Alaska initiated the “Kids Don’t Float” program. Fireman Bob Painter of Homer founded the program after a number of children drowned in Homer. New Mexico is another state with a very high rate of (non-pool) drownings.

    One reason is that people, including half-term governessing “mama grizzlies”, don’t follow the law and use personal flotation devices for their children and themselves.

    “Some costs of not using the Alaska PFD and leading by example”

    http://ykalaska.wordpress.com/2009/07/12/some-costs-of-not-using-the-alaska-pfd/

    Like

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