Column: Alarming increase in children drowning

As a community, we must do more to prevent kids from dying in water.
Published March 14
Updated March 15

BY KELLY DEVERS

Special to the Times

In 2017, four children drowned in Hillsborough County. In 2018, the number spiked to an alarming 15 – an increase of 275 percent. More children under the age of six died from drowning in pools, ponds, lakes and bathtubs than any other preventable cause in Hillsborough. As a community, we can and we must do more.

Sadly, I’ve had to perform autopsies on babies who drowned in bathtubs because they were unsupervised for a very short period of time, and on toddlers who quietly walked out by the pool and drowned when a caretaker looked away for just one moment. In some cases, the pool safety fence was broken or the door alarm didn’t work.

It only takes 20 seconds for a child to begin to drown, and supervision is the single best method of prevention. In the few minutes that parents and caregivers shift their attention from the young child to preparing meals, answering the door, or to care for another child, that young child can wander off and drown.

Even one preventable child death is too many. Accidental drownings can and do happen to attentive, caring parents. Acknowledging that these types of accidents can affect any family can help parents, caregivers and friends realize that extra steps need to be taken to keep children safe.

For example, install alarms that alert loudly when a child opens an exterior door, and have yard and pool fencing erected to prevent children from readily accessing water. These alerts and barriers are backups to vigilant supervision. Importantly, when children go missing, search nearby pools and bodies of water first.

Assign a designated “water watcher” anytime children are playing in pools or at the beach. Despite Hollywood portrayals, infants and toddlers don’t usually splash or cry out when they drown. They often drown silently, without any warning. A water watcher should keep their eyes on children in the water and not allow distractions like cellphones or other amusements to divert their attention.

Understand that there are hidden hazards everywhere, from a pet’s water bowl to a toilet. Crawling babies and toddlers can drown in as little as an inch of water, and their disproportionately heavy heads make self-extrication extremely difficult. Know that you can easily play a role in helping to keep kids safe by asking parents and caregivers of young children to take action today to prevent accidental drownings.

Dr. Kelly Devers is Hillsborough County’s chief medical examiner.

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