As summer approaches and Americans head out to community pools, waterparks and beaches, the majority will come home safely, thanks to swim lessons, lifeguards and a focus on water safety. But in other parts of the world, that’s just not happening.

“Worldwide, millions of people live, work and commute near a variety of different water sources, but unlike in America, people in many developing countries rarely have the opportunity to use water for recreation,” said Justin Scarr, drowning prevention commissioner at Australia’s International Life Saving Federation.

“If you take Asia, an area with very high rates of drowning as an example, you’ll find that it is crisscrossed by rivers, lakes, canals, irrigation ditches, rice paddies and ponds. People are busy surviving, where large families and poverty can be an issue. There is currently little room for what we know as water safety skills and education. Unfortunately, this means that many children are drowning and usually only meters from the home,” Scarr added.

In Asia, as many as 350,000 children drown every year, 1,000 every day, according to research conducted by The Alliance for Safe Children and UNICEF. Drowning is now known to be the leading cause of death for children between 1 and 4 years of age in many Asian countries.

In Vietnam, for example, 11,000 children will drown every year — about 32 every day, according to a report to UNICEF by the Hanoi School of Public Health. UNICEF reports that Bangladesh will lose more than 16,000 children annually, close to 50 infants, kids and teenagers every single day.

Until recently, those drowning numbers have been little more than guesswork. “Health statistics have traditionally come from hospitals and health centers: who presents with what symptoms, how many survive, how many die. The thousands of children who drown in a village pond or a nearby rice paddy rarely see a hospital,” Scarr said. “This means that for a very long time, child drowning statistics have been grossly under-counted and the enormous scale of this issue has gone by largely unnoticed.”

Experts say the problem has reached epidemic proportions and must be addressed in a global public health context. To help bring international attention to this issue, the International Life Saving Federation (the world’s governing body for drowning prevention) is steering focus of the World Conference on Drowning Prevention in this direction. Hosted by the Royal Life Saving Society – Australia, in partnership with The Alliance for Safe Children, a U.S. nongovernmental organization, the conference will be held in Vietnam in May 2011.

More than 400 experts from around the globe are expected to attend, to discuss the latest research and thinking on child drowning interventions, emergency response, lifeguarding, swim instruction, disaster and climate change.

“The primary aim of the conference is to create a strategy that we can take to governments, partner aid organizations and, importantly, the villages and rural areas themselves; a strategy that will let us end this horrific epidemic of child drowning,” Scarr said. “We specifically chose to hold the conference in Vietnam because it is right where this issue is happening. It is also where we’ve had some great success teaching children basic survival swimming skills, and there’ll be opportunities for conference delegates to see those programs in place.”

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