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As drowning numbers rise, fact remains most deaths preventable

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Maybe it's the early start to the warm season this year, or the hot summer that's driving everyone to seek relief at lakes and swimming pools.

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Whatever the reason, Minnesota is seeing a dismaying spike this summer in drowning deaths.

There's no trend that seems to stand out. The drownings this year have claimed the lives of both children and older adults.

They've happened in lakes and pools. They've involved boaters and swimmers.

There's been considerable research on the risk factors that contribute to drowning, and it all points to the same conclusion: Many, if not most, drowning deaths can be prevented.

Among the facts:

n Children are the most vulnerable to drowning - and this seems to be true worldwide, not just in the United States. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the second leading cause of injury-related deaths in the U.S. among children ages 1 to 4.

n The majority of drowning deaths among American children happen in swimming pools, not lakes or rivers.

n Most - although not all - drowning victims are male.

n One of the risk factors for drowning is, not surprisingly, exposure to water. Others that most of us are likely aware of include alcohol use, risky behavior and lack of supervision.

n There are less well known risk factors as well: lower socioeconomic status, less education and rural residency.

n Some demographic groups also seem to be more at risk than others. A study done in Canada a couple of years ago found that new immigrants are more vulnerable to drowning, probably because many of them never learned how to swim. Other studies have found similar issues among African-American children.

An article published this spring in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that if you adjust for exposure to swimming vs. exposure to traffic crashes, drowning deaths are 200 times more common than deaths from crashes.

Knowing what many of the most influential risk factors are, how can we avoid becoming one of the statistics?

Learning how to swim is at the top of the list. But experts say there are other important steps that can be taken as well.

For parents, keeping an eye on kids in the water and not allowing themselves to be distracted is key, Susan Grundeen recently told the Pioneer Press of St. Paul. "Leave the cellphones, the magazines, the books aside," said Grundeen, who is the beach safety coordinator for the Three Rivers Park District. "When you're with that one person, have your eyes on them at all times."

One of the myths about drowning, abetted by television and the movies, is that people who are drowning will splash around and yell for help. The reality is that drowning oftentimes is silent; indeed, someone who's going under often isn't even capable of waving or yelling. Many swimmers who get into trouble are never noticed until they're found submerged in the water.

Water safety experts also point to the importance of swimming where there's a lifeguard and sticking to beaches and lakes with which you're familiar.

Finally, don't assume that good swimmers never drown. Fatigue, cramps and even unexpected injuries or a medical emergency can overwhelm the strongest of swimmers. I've heard anecdotally of skilled swimmers who got into trouble because they hyperventilated in order to hold their breath under water and ended up blacking out.

Of all the activities to be enjoyed during the summer, swimming combines some of the best - physical activity, hanging out with friends and family, and a chance to cool off. Rather than being fearful of the water, swimmers can be prudent yet still reap all the benefits.

Maybe it's the early start to the warm season this year, or the hot summer that's driving everyone to seek relief at lakes and swimming pools.

Whatever the reason, Minnesota is seeing a dismaying spike this summer in drowning deaths.

There's no trend that seems to stand out. The drownings this year have claimed the lives of both children and older adults.

They've happened in lakes and pools. They've involved boaters and swimmers.

There's been considerable research on the risk factors that contribute to drowning, and it all points to the same conclusion: Many, if not most, drowning deaths can be prevented.

Among the facts:

- Children are the most vulnerable to drowning - and this seems to be true worldwide, not just in the United States. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the second leading cause of injury-related deaths in the U.S. among children ages 1 to 4.

- The majority of drowning deaths among American children happen in swimming pools, not lakes or rivers.

- Most - although not all - drowning victims are male.

- One of the risk factors for drowning is, not surprisingly, exposure to water. Others that most of us are likely aware of include alcohol use, risky behavior and lack of supervision.

- There are less well known risk factors as well: lower socioeconomic status, less education and rural residency.

- Some demographic groups also seem to be more at risk than others. A study done in Canada a couple of years ago found that new immigrants are more vulnerable to drowning, probably because many of them never learned how to swim. Other studies have found similar issues among African-American children.

An article published this spring in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that if you adjust for exposure to swimming vs. exposure to traffic crashes, drowning deaths are 200 times more common than deaths from crashes.

Knowing what many of the most influential risk factors are, how can we avoid becoming one of the statistics?

Learning how to swim is at the top of the list. But experts say there are other important steps that can be taken as well.

For parents, keeping an eye on kids in the water and not allowing themselves to be distracted is key, Susan Grundeen recently told the Pioneer Press of St. Paul. "Leave the cellphones, the magazines, the books aside," said Grundeen, who is the beach safety coordinator for the Three Rivers Park District. "When you're with that one person, have your eyes on them at all times."

One of the myths about drowning, abetted by television and the movies, is that people who are drowning will splash around and yell for help. The reality is that drowning oftentimes is silent; indeed, someone who's going under often isn't even capable of waving or yelling. Many swimmers who get into trouble are never noticed until they're found submerged in the water.

Water safety experts also point to the importance of swimming where there's a lifeguard and sticking to beaches and lakes with which you're familiar.

Finally, don't assume that good swimmers never drown. Fatigue, cramps and even unexpected injuries or a medical emergency can overwhelm the strongest of swimmers. I've heard anecdotally of skilled swimmers who got into trouble because they hyperventilated in order to hold their breath under water and ended up blacking out.

Of all the activities to be enjoyed during the summer, swimming combines some of the best - physical activity, hanging out with friends and family, and a chance to cool off. Rather than being fearful of the water, swimmers can be prudent yet still reap all the benefits.

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Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

(320) 235-1150
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