Northern Ireland

World Health Organization warns that 20,000 drowning deaths in Europe each year are 'entirely preventable'

The World Health Organisation say at least 20,000 people die from drowning in the European Region every year. Picture, WHO/Yoshi Shimizu
The World Health Organisation say at least 20,000 people die from drowning in the European Region every year. Picture, WHO/Yoshi Shimizu

The World Health Organization has said that 20,000 drowning deaths every year in the European region are "entirely preventable".

Most recently, the catastrophic loss of over 600 lives during the capsizing of the tiny Adriana fishing vessel between Greece and Italy has brought this into focus.

But WHO has said the public must also be mindful of the every-day risks that claim lives each year, such as jumping into an unfenced backyard swimming pool, being caught in a rip tide while swimming at the beach or sailing or paddleboarding without a life jacket.

Tuesday, July 25, is the World Day of Drowning Prevention as set out by the United Nations General Assembly.

Globally, WHO estimate that at least 236,000 people lose their lives from drowning every year.

This does not include events related to water transport, environmental disasters, self-harm or assault – with WHO stating the true figure of drowning deaths could be 30-50 per cent higher.

While the European region total of 20,000 may seem small compared to the global burden, it remains the second-leading cause of death for children aged 5-14.

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Drowning mortality in 30-49-year-olds is also the highest of all six WHO regions – reflecting that drownings are more associated with water recreation than survival.

The impact of non-fatal injuries, ranging from respiratory impairment due to inhalation of water to hypoxic brain injuries with life-long consequences.

Then, with reported deaths just the tip of the iceberg, drowning also causes a wide spectrum

With Europe having the highest alcohol consumption of any WHO region, the risk is increased for violence and injury – with alcohol linked to 26 per cent of all drowning deaths.

Drownings linked to the migration crisis show that around 34,000 people have drowned trying to reach other countries since records began in 2014.

Three-quarters (76 per cent) of these have occurred in the Mediterranean and the English Channel.

The severity of the issue has seen drowning placed higher on health and safety agendas.

In May this year, the World Health Assembly adopted a landmark resolution on drowning prevention championed by 72 countries including 42 of the 53 countries in the European region.

WHO has welcomed this in a statement, but questioned what it really means to “countries as disparate as Ireland, an island with over 3,000 km of coastline,” as well as Turkmenistan where 70 per cent of the country is desert.

The organisation asks: “How will WHO Member States take concrete action on an issue that needs far more attention than seen so far?”

Next year, WHO will publish the Global Status Report on Drowning Prevention, which for the first time will document the burden in all member states and document national prevention and response efforts.

The goal is to use the evidence to offer policy and practical options to help countries do even more.

The statement adds: “Going forward, we should ensure that our collective focus on drowning will no longer be based on the latest mass casualty disaster that captures the headlines all too briefly, but instead on how the loss of each and every life to drowning – no matter what the circumstances - could have been prevented in the first place.”