Yadira Salcedo was born in Mexico to parents who could not swim. As a child, she almost drowned when she waded too deep in a backyard pool.
Now a mother of two in Santa Ana, Calif., Ms. Salcedo is “breaking the cycle,” she said, making sure Ezra, 3, and Ian, 1, never experience such terror. The family qualified for Red Cross grants to a new program that teaches children who may not have other opportunities to learn how to swim.
On a recent day, Ms. Salcedo and her children climbed into the Salgado Community Center pool together, using kickboards and blowing bubbles with a teacher, Josue, who uses a mix of English and Spanish.
Drowning is the leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 4, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Deaths are likely to increase this month, as they do every July, with children drowning just feet from their parents without a scream, struggle or splash. A 4-year-old at a Texas hotel pool, a 5-year-old in a California river, a 6-year-old at a Missouri lake and a 10-year-old at an Indiana public pool all drowned just recently. a week
And yet, despite calls from the United Nations, the United States is one of the only developed countries without a federal plan to deal with the crisis. Thirty years of progress in reducing the number of drowning deaths in the country appears to have plateaued, and disparity in deaths among some racial groups has worsened.
“It is hard to imagine a more preventable cause of death. Nobody’s going to say, ‘Oh, well, some people just drown,’” said William Ramos, an associate professor at Indiana University School of Public Health-Bloomington and the director of the school’s Water Institute.
“It’s time to go deeper than the sad statistics and answer the ‘why’ and the ‘how,'” he said.
A parent who never learned to swim gives an 87 percent chance that a child won’t either, said Dr. Sadiqa AI Kendi, the division chief of pediatric emergency medicine at Boston Medical Center, who studies the cyclical nature of hurt and injustice.
“This is anthropology,” Mr. Ramos said. “Starting a new story about water is not an easy task.”
The National Institutes of Health recently published call for research proposals to examine drowning prevention, writing that “little is known” about what intervention strategies work. The CDC said it planned to conduct an in-depth analysis of child drones in several states to better understand the contributing factors.
But epidemiologists point to a host of factors that could make it increasingly difficult to close the gap, including shrinking recreation department budgets, lack of national lifeguards and an era of entertainment on pool decks, as parents juggle child supervision with laptops and cell phones as they work at home.
In the long term, the numbers are likely to be exacerbated by climate change, said Deborah Girasek, drone researcher at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. More children are likely to drown in hurricane flood water in Florida, fall through thin ice in Wisconsin or climb into confined reservoirs in Yosemite for respite from the rising heat. (Research shows that drowning increases with each degree on the thermometer.)
Although overall drownings have decreased by one third since 1990, they have rose by 16.8 percent in 2020 alone, according to the CDC There are still more than 4,000 of them in the United States each year, and about a quarter of the deaths are of children. An analysis by the CDC shows that Black children between the ages of 5 and 9 are 2.6 times more likely to drown in swimming pools than white children, and those between the ages of 10 and 14 are 3.6 times more likely to drown. Differences are also present in most age groups for Asian and Pacific Islander, Hispanic, and Native American and Alaskan Native children.
Socio-economic factors are also at play. A study of drownings in Harris County, Texas, for example, showed that they were almost three times more likely for a child in a multi-family home than in a single-family residence, and that drownings in multi-family pools — like the one at the Salcedos’ residence — were 28 times more likely than in single-family pools.
Ms. Salcedo said she often saw children swimming in her apartment complex’s pool unsupervised, the gate propped half-closed with a water bottle or shoe.
The leading theory to explain the disparities traces back half a century to the proliferation of municipal swimming pools after World War II. When these gave way to suburban swimming clubs and middle-class backyard pools, the historian Jeff Wiltse wrote in his book about swimming pool history, white children began learning to swim in private lessons, while children in minority families saw public pools fall into disrepair and water budgets were cut. Many of the facilities and educational programs never recovered.
Black adults in particular report having negative experiences around water, with familiar anecdotes of being banned from public beaches during Jim Crow-era segregation and brutalized during the integration of public pools.
UN resolution published in 2021 and World Health Assembly a decision this year to accelerate action encouraged each member nation to prioritize the fight against childhood drones. Both the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics begged the US government to catch up.
“Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa – they all have a plan. We don’t,” Mr. Ramos said. “The message to Congress is: We have to fix this, and we can. But look at seat belts, fire safety, smoking cessation. Legislation is what will move the needle.”
Officials could add aquatics to gym class curricula or require four-sided pool fences in backyards (because many victims still wander into pools from the exposed side facing the house). Ms. Girasek said she wants to see legislation because “we see very clearly that it works.”
After the 7-year-old granddaughter of former Secretary of State Virginia Graeme Baker was caught in the suction of a hot tub drain and drowned, a federal law was named in her honor that required public swimming pools and spas to be equipped with drain covers that met certain standards. . It seemed to almost eradicate such deaths.
US National Water Security Action Plan, launched by a group of non-profits last week, is the country’s first attempt to build a road map to deal with the crisis. Its 99 recommendations for the next decade serve as a sobering guide through the country’s various gaps in research, funding, surveillance and parent education, compiled by serious advocates on shoestring budgets who are not equipped to fill them alone.
Connie Harvey, the director of the Aquatics Centennial Campaign at the American Red Cross, held a Capitol Hill briefing recently along with other experts, she said, “to let our leaders know that there is a plan — that this plan exists.”
Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Democrat of Florida and a longtime advocate for drone prevention, was the only member of Congress to attend.
In the meantime, some local governments have adopted their own interventions. This summer, Seattle is piloting a a new initiative based on the non-profit No More Below, which connects hundreds of low-income and foster children with swimming lessons. Broward County, Fla., which has some of the highest drowning rates in the state, offers free coupons. And Santa Ana plans to draw more than $800,000 from its Cannabis Public Benefit Fund this year to bring its water program back under its domain.
The city, with a population that is nearly 80 percent Hispanic nestled among wealthier Orange County suburbs, has historically featured racial and economic health disparities. One of its public pools is 63 years old. But its Parks and Recreation Department recently hired an aquatics supervisor and 36 new lifeguards — several of whom the supervisor had to teach to swim first.
Under the new Santa Ana program, Ms. Salcedo, a waitress, and her husband, a postal worker, who live in a three-generation household, secured scholarships that brought the cost of swimming lessons down to $15 per child every two weeks. They plan to attend all summer.
Ezra, who is 3, screamed on the first day of lessons. Now he’s sharing facts about hammerheads between beats while singing “Baby Shark.” Ian, the 1-year-old, has not yet mastered walking on land. However, he paddled after an orange rubber duck, with his mother – now a proficient swimmer – keeping him afloat.