Australia’s waterways have proven particularly hazardous for people over the past year.
Royal Life Saving’s annual National Drowning Report reveals a 38 per cent increase in the number of drowning deaths among children under age 5 as the total overall grew to 291.
Many drownings occurred in places largely overlooked — rivers first, followed by beaches — and improperly supervised or fenced home swimming pools remain a major concern.
Health Minister Greg Hunt, announcing a review into the country’s water-safety strategy, says the report is sobering.
“There has to be more education. There has to be better-targeted education. That’s about swimming, it’s about where to swim, and it’s about vigilance and taking care of others. I’m announcing that we will review our water-safety actions with the Australian government, the states and the volunteer sector. It’s simply something we have to do. Many times in this place, it’s too easy to look the other way or to gloss over something. There’s no glossing over 291 deaths.”
Australians aged 75 years and over also accounted for a spike in numbers, with 36 drownings.
The principal research associate with Life Saving Victoria, Dr Bernadette Matthews, says older people may not realise their levels of fitness have declined.
She also points out the hidden dangers some medications pose, such as increasing the risk of falling.
“People often think that it’s typically young people, but we do see a number of adults over the age of 75 years drowning, and so it was quite concerning to see a 38 per cent increase in older adults drowning nationally. And so that highlights the need for all Australians to be aware of the increased drowning risk associated with pre-existing medical conditions and the impacts of medications and dangers of swimming alone.”
The report is the first to look at both drownings and near-drownings.
The Society estimates close to 700 people were hospitalised after such incidents, with many non-fatal cases requiring ongoing medical treatment.
Dr Matthews says the drowning victims are not the only ones affected.
“So there can be long-term brain damage. There’s also the ongoing trauma to the families and everyone involved in such an incident. So we really thought that it’s important to broaden the picture of drowning to show that there are multiple effects on many different people in our community.”
The changing make-up of Australian society provides a unique challenge.
The national manager of research and policy with the Royal Life Saving Society of Australia, Amy Peden, says people from overseas account for over 30 per cent of drownings.
In the past 12 months, 20 international tourists drowned in Australian waterways, almost all of them from European or Asian countries.
And Ms Peden says new migrants can lack an understanding of water safety.
“People who’ve migrated to Australia might have come as asylum seekers, refugees. They have other priorities when they resettle in Australia — learning the language, getting a job, getting into school, learning their way around. So water safety’s not often a priority. But we are working with those communities, because we want them to enjoy our waterways as well.”