Quebec’s Drowning Epidemic

Regardless of age or skill level, no one is drown-proof. Each year in Canada, approximately 60 children aged 14 and under drown, while another 140 are hospitalized for near-drowning events. Quebec has already seen 40 drownings this year, and the summer has just begun. What does this tell us? More importantly, how can we reverse this disturbing trend? As Director of Trauma and Director of The Canadian Hospitals Injury Prevention and Reporting Program at The Montreal Children's Hospital of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), I believe the answer lies in the promotion of more concurrent initiatives to prevent trauma-related injuries such as drowning, sooner rather than later.
I strongly support the Quebec government’s Residential Swimming Pool Safety Law unveiled in 2010. This law includes mandatory fencing around pools installed after July 22, 2010. However, I fail to comprehend why all municipalities did not enforce by-laws that would require homeowners to ensure that all backyard swimming pools--not only newly installed ones--are surrounded by 4-sided fencing that is a minimum of 4 feet in height, that has no opening below the fence, and that has automatic locking gates. The risk of drowning is the same for a pool built prior to 2010 as for those built after 2010.
Since 2008, five coroners investigating drowning deaths have recommended that the province’s Education Ministry roll out a Swim to Survive program to promote basic swimming skills to school-aged children. Two of those recommendations came in the past year when seven children aged 5 to 18 drowned in Quebec’s rivers, and swimming pools. Within the last few days, the Education Ministry has vowed to implement this same lifesaving program for Quebec children in grade 3. I commend this plan and certainly support it, but what about the children who never make it to grade 3?
According to Safekids Canada, the majority of drowning deaths in young children under the age of 5, and many of them occur in backyard swimming pools. A 2010 Lifesaving Society preliminary report on National water-related fatalities notes that last year saw a 60% spike in drowning in children under 5 years of age compared to the preceding year. Young children are curious, they do not recognize the potential for danger, and they are impulsive. A warm summer day around a pool is great family fun, but vigilant supervision at all times is essential with all eyes being on the water. A young child can quickly panic and drown. In the past few weeks, The Montreal Children’s Hospital Trauma Centre of the MUHC has already treated several children under the age of 5 who have drowned in portable, above-ground, or in-ground backyard swimming pools. The new swimming program would have done little to prevent these incidents.
The World Health Organization explains that prevention strategies to reduce drowning deaths and near-death injuries should be developed using a combination of educational initiatives, environmental measures, and engineering modifications, and yes, in some cases enforcement and legislation. Successful injury prevention ventures often result from concurrent initiatives, none of which are mutually exclusive. The bottom line is that the aforementioned strategies are all needed and they are needed now!
Debbie Friedman BSc. pht. M. Mgmt.
Trauma Director , Montreal Children’s Hospital
McGill University Health Centre
Director, Canadian Hospitals Injury Prevention and Reporting Program (MCH)
Assistant Professor, Department of Pediatrics, Faculty of Medicine, McGill University