Drowning Still No. 1 Killer of Thai Kids

Some babies cool off in the water of Ampuen Reservoir on April 6, 2016, in Surin province. Photo: Matichon

BANGKOK — Drowning still kills the most Thai children, but fatalities have fallen to a new low and those working to save lives say awareness has improved.

Following a sustained effort, government-reported drowning deaths in 2017 were the lowest in two decades. According to fresh figures released Friday, 113 children drowned March to May during the summer school break, significantly lower than the 448 deaths in the same period six years ago.

Swimming and water safely are not widely taught to children. Most drowning deaths occur in or near children’s homes.

The health ministry acknowledged drowning to still be the No. 1 cause of death among Thai children in 2017, although the number has steadily dropped since 2005. Last year, 708 children drowned, according to official statistics, the lowest since 1996.

Thailand’s unusually high level of youth drowning deaths has been a recurring cause for alarm over the years. Since 2009, the ministry has designated the first Saturday of every March to be the day specifically for raising awareness on the issue. March, the beginning of summer break, begins the deadliest period of such accidents.

It has also launched “Merit Makers” teams, a non-profit organization, across the country since 2015 to teach children how to swim and rescue others from drowning.

The Bureau of Non Communicable Diseases said an average of 957 children under 15 have drowned annually in the past 10 years, while many private foundations reported the number to be more than 2,600 per year.

The founder of the Swimsafe Sharks Thailand, a drowning prevention group, questioned the official stats.

“Everybody has different figures. That’s what I’m worried about,” said founder Andrew Stenning. “I think every year is inaccurate.”

But those much high numbers appear derived from a 13-year-old study conducted by UNICEF and Chulalongkorn University that hasn’t been updated. The year it was published, 2006, the bureau reported the number was below 1,600.

A representative from a government swim program in Nakhon Ratchasima province, where the most children died last year, said 22 drowned during the first quarter of this year.

“In small children, it usually happens when parents leave them out of sight for just minutes, like going to the back of the house to do something, and the babies crawl out and fall into water,” said Thamon Pinklang of the Phimai district’s Merit Makers team. “Older kids will sneak out to play in water with their friends without telling their parents, although they can’t really swim.”

She believes the trend is getting better due to their relentless efforts.

“After a child drowns, the team will investigate the scene and come up with additional measures to prevent it from happening again,” she said. “In our district, there’s been no repeat of such accidents in the same spot they happened before. The situation here is getting better.”

Although casting doubt on the official statistics, Stenning of SwimSafe agrees there’s been an overall improvement in awareness.

“[The number] depends on season and whether there’s a natural disaster, but I think, on the ground, the actual awareness is going very good in Thailand,” he said. “Schools want to start more teaching programs about water safety, swimming and floods [to children].”