As drowning becomes a bigger focus nationwide, prevention efforts are beginning to stretch outside the bounds of aquatics. New information, studies, ideas and causes are emerging from a diverse group of experts that could transform preventive strategies in the pool and farther afield.

Children remain the biggest concern. In the United States, drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death for children ages 14 and under. The problem grows to epidemic proportions in developing nations such as Vietnam, where as many as 11,000 children drown every year, according to a report to UNICEF by the Hanoi School of Public Health.

The keynote speaker at this month’s National Drowning Prevention Alliance symposium may offer some solutions for the first and third worlds alike. Dr. Stephen Beerman looks at the success of “collaborative alliances” used to address the global drowning epidemic, and how those strategies could be applied to at-risk populations in the United States.

“We can prevent these drownings with simple, cost-effective, focused interventions delivered by communities for their communities in a culturally appreciative manner,” said Beerman, president of the International Lifesaving Federation, and clinical associate professor and postgraduate site director, Department of Family Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of British Columbia.

Dr. Julie Gilchrist of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has presented data analysis clearly identifying the U.S. at-risk population, which experts say could benefit from a similar approach to drowning prevention. African-Americans ages 5 to 19 are six times more likely to drown in a pool than 5- to 19-year-olds identified as white or Hispanic, she reported at the 2011 World Aquatic Health Conference. This statistic is far more dire than previous research looking at drownings overall, which indicated that African Americans are just three times more likely to drown.     

“Clearly, in that population we have an issue,” Gilchrist said.

Another issue gaining more attention is irresponsible parenting.Teresa Covington, director of the National Center for Child Death Review Policy and Practice is set to share data at the NDPA symposium, which shows connections between child neglect and drownings. Her agency collected information on nearly 2,000 drownings and it is becoming increasingly clear that in a large percentage of drownings, there are prior records of abuse and neglect, said Kim Burgess, executive director of the NDPA.

But not all the news is bad. Gordon Giesbrecht, Ph.D., a thermophysiology professor at University of Manitoba, has been researching the human body’s response to cold for more than two decades. Today Giesbrecht, also known as Dr. Popsicle, is helping to pioneer research in treating water submersion incident victims by inducing hypothermia. Currently the ational Institutes of Health is undergoing a five-year study on hypothermia and water submersion incidents that could have a significant impact, Burgess noted.

Other lifesaving efforts apparently are paying off as well. A recent report on submersion incident-related hospitalizations found that fewer children now require hospitalizations after such incidents than there were 20 years ago, according to researcher Stephen Bowman, Ph.D., MHA, an assistant professor with the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy.

“This is another piece of support for the value of having trained lifeguards and environments where children are supervised,” Bowman said.

His team analyzed data from the 1993-2008 Nationwide Inpatient Sample of the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project, sponsored by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. It found pediatric hospitalizations from drowning-related incidents declined 51 percent from 1993 to 2008.

Hospitalization rates went down for males and females in all age groups (infants, kids, teens), with the greatest declines in the South. Cultivating this kind of a broad cross section of research — and using it to create collaborative alliances — is what will ultimately save lives, according to drowning prevention advocates.

“We need to get more info on the data of the drowning to find out exactly who’s drowning, why and how can we keep it from happening,” Burgess said.