CDC Urges More Access to Swimming Lessons as U.S. Drownings Increase

Lack of access to swimming facilities and lessons in minority communities may be contributing to increased drowning deaths in recent years.

As the summer swimming season gets underway following the Memorial Day holiday, federal health authorities are pushing for greater access to swimming lessons nationwide, indicating that drowning deaths are continuing to increase among young children, elderly adults and minorities of all ages.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a press release on May 14,  revealing that after decades of decline, approximately 4,500 people drowned annually in the United States between 2020 and 2022, representing an increase of about 500 deaths per year compared to 2019.

The CPSC tracks and records pool and spa injury and fatality data every year to determine the populations most at risk, and to implement educational programs in those areas to reduce the amount of preventable drowning deaths.

Despite these drowning deaths being almost entirely avoidable, the CPSC identified a 12.5% increase in the number of drowning fatalities over the last several years when compared to 2019, with the greatest increases in fatalities involving children one to four years old, adults 65 years and older of all races and ethnicities, as well as Black people of all ages.

The CDC indicates that drowning is the top cause of death for children ages one to four in the United States and that non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native and non-Hispanic Black individuals had the highest drowning rates among different racial and ethnic groups.

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CDC Drowning Prevention Recommendations

Ensuring access to swimming lessons can be a lifesaver, according to the commission. Nearly 40 million adults in the United States (15.4%) lack swimming skills, with over half (54.7%) never having received swimming lessons. Over a third of Black adults (36.8%) admit they can’t swim, compared to 15% of the general adult population. Furthermore, the majority of Black adults (63%) and Hispanic adults (72%) have never taken swimming lessons, highlighting a concerning trend.

Research suggests that differences in reported swimming ability could be linked to factors such as unequal access to swimming lessons, as well as historical and social factors. For instance, swimming lessons might be too costly or unavailable in certain communities. Some individuals may also fear water or feel uncomfortable in traditional swimwear.

The CDC suggests that inclusive programs built by policy makers and public health professions can be an effective way to protect everyone’s health and safety. The recommendations include, building and renovating public pools to boost swimming access for everyone, encouraging affordable swimming and water safety lessons provided by various partners like the American Red Cross, YMCA, and local community organizations, and swimming and water safety skills training professionals reaching out to communities to better understand what barriers people face to participate in lessons.

“No one should have to lose a loved one to drowning,” Dr. Tessa Clemens, health scientist in CDC’s Division of Injury Prevention and lead author of the report said. “Improving access to effective prevention strategies, like basic swimming and water safety skills training, can reduce drowning risk.”

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