Drowning among adolescents on the rise in Australia, Canada and New Zealand
By Dr Amy Peden, School of Population Health, UNSW Sydney
Drowning is a significant cause of death and disability and has recently been acknowledged by a United Nations Declaration on Global Drowning Prevention as an issue necessitating governmental commitment. Drowning claims the lives of more than 200,000 people around the world each year, with even more drowning deaths due to disaster and water transportation not currently included in global estimates.
Over half of all global drowning deaths occur among children and young people under the age of 25. In particular, children under five are the age group at highest risk of drowning. While drowning prevention strategies are well understood and effective among young children, recent research, published in Acta Paediatrica, has indicated that drowning rates among adolescents 10-19 years are increasing in Australia and New Zealand.
What does the research show?
We analysed fatal unintentional drowning data from Australia, Canada and New Zealand for children and adolescents aged 0-19 years for the 10 year period 2005-2014. While drowning rates among children under five have reduced significantly across all three countries (-49% in Australia, -51% in Canada and -30% in New Zealand) and drowning rates among 5-9 year olds remain consistently low, drowning rates among 10-14 year olds in Australia (+48%) and 15-19 year olds in New Zealand (+27%) are increasing.
What is driving this increase?
Increases in fatal unintentional drowning among adolescents in Australia and New Zealand, appear to be driven by significant increases in drowning among adolescent females, with a 196% increase in drowning rates among 10-14 year old females in Australia and 200% in 15 to 19 year old females in New Zealand.
Why might this be happening?
Adolescence is a period of great change. Adolescents begin visiting aquatic locations with peers not parents, licensed driving allows adolescents to visit new and unfamiliar aquatic locations. Consumption of drugs and alcohol which may also commence in adolescence can significantly increase drowning risk. Research has identified that females in early adulthood consume alcohol to risky levels at inland waterways, and often exceed the consumption levels of males.
What can we do about this?
Although males have been identified as being less cautious and more likely to underestimate risk during adolescence, there has been little focused drowning prevention effort for females. Our findings indicate that drowning prevention efforts for adolescent females are urgently required. Similarly, while alcohol-focused water safety campaigns traditionally target males, research identifying consumption of alcohol among females highlights the importance of ensuring females are also receiving alcohol and drowning risk reduction messages and interventions.
Adolescence is a significant life stage and presents a valuable opportunity to reduce drowning-related harm and foster healthy aquatic behaviours throughout the life course. This research identifies there is an urgent need to act to foster safer aquatic behaviours among adolescents and in particular adolescent females.
Peden, A. E., Franklin, R. C., & Clemens, T. (2021). Can child drowning be eradicated? A compelling case for continued investment in prevention. Acta paediatrica, 110(7), 2126-2133. https://doi.org/10.1111/apa.15618
Dr Amy Peden is a researcher in the Centre for Research Excellence in Driving Global Investment in Adolescent Health.