Get kids swimming lessons, study author says

Published 7:15 pm Saturday, June 14, 2014

Black children ages 11 to 12 drown in swimming pools at 10 times the rate of white children the same age.

That was one of the most surprising findings from a national study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that, for the first time, probed the long-known racial disparities in drowning deaths by age and location.

“Disparities have been known, but we’ve never had enough information to be able to look at them in a different way by age, race/ethnicity and location of drowning,” said Dr. Julie Gilchrist, who authored the study along with Dr. Erin Parker.

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The study analyzed 12 years of deaths, from 1999 to 2010, for people ages 29 and younger. About 4,000 people in the United States die from drowning each year, and drowning is responsible for more deaths among children aged 1 to 4 than any other cause except congenital anomalies.

Surprisingly, the racial disparity was greatest in swimming pools, with blacks ages 5 to 19 dying of drowning at 5.5 times the rate of whites the same age.

Gilchrist said swimming pools are often considered the safest place for aquatic activities because their depth is known, their bottom is visible, they lack current and underwater hazards and the sides are a relatively short distance from any point in the pool.

But even so, drowning in pools continues to be a public health problem for all ages and races, but especially for young blacks, Gilchrist said.

“If you have basic swimming skills as a teenager, it should be very hard to drown in a residential swimming pool,” Gilchrist said.

But 62 percent of blacks ages 18 and older report limited swimming ability. The rate for youngsters is probably even higher.

“This information suggests we’ve got populations who aren’t gaining those life-saving skills,” Gilchrist said. “We need to do something.”

She said some people consider it simply an access issue — that there simply needs to be a pool in the neighborhood and everything will be fine.

“It’s beyond an access issue,” she said. “One of the reasons there isn’t a pool in every neighborhood is a demand issue. We need to change the culture. If parents don’t know how to swim, their children are dramatically less likely to learn how to swim.”

In Suffolk, only 19 children took advantage of swimming lessons last year at Cypress Park Pool, Parks and Recreation Director Lakita Watson said.

Gilchrist said parents need to start thinking of swimming as more than just another activity competing for their child’s time.

“It’s a safety skill,” she said. “You’re teaching them how to safely cross the street because you know that’s something they’re going to encounter. You need to teach them how to act in water.”

Gilchrist said many parents think they can just keep their child away from pools, which is fine when they are infants and toddlers. But as children age, they start going to friends’ homes and going on vacation where there may be natural bodies of water. There’s also the ever-present risk of a car crash into a body of water.

Gilchrist said children simply need to be taught — especially for swimming pools — how to right themselves in the water, control their breathing, survey their surroundings, float and traverse a short distance.

“The majority of drownings happen very close to a safe place, and they just can’t get that distance,” she said. “You don’t need to be able to swim three miles, you just need to be able to traverse a reasonable distance.”

Parents and others who supervise children in pools also need to familiarize themselves with the symptoms of drowning.

“Drowning happens silently and very quickly,” Gilchrist said. “How Hollywood depicts drowning is not how it happens. You can’t expect to see somebody waving their arms.”

Swimming lessons at Cypress Park Pool begin this week. Call 514-7270 for more information.