WHO Urges Gov’t to Take Action to End Child Drowning Epidemic

Just two days ago, Dom Savorn was overcome with despair when her grandson drowned in a pond behind her family’s home in Kompong Speu province.

She had left 18-month-old Phal Veasna with her husband, who had turned his back for a few moments. When he looked back, the toddler had disappeared.

“Everyone started to panic…. Together we went to look in the pond and found the boy had drowned,” Ms. Savorn said. “I was shocked and saddened.”

Phal Veasna was one of hundreds of children who drown in Cambodia every year. His death on Monday coincided with the release of a World Health Organization (WHO) report—“Global report on drowning: preventing a leading killer”—that calls drowning a “hidden childhood killer” and calls on governments and local-level authorities to put in place a series of simple measures it says will prevent the needless loss of life.

According to the WHO, drowning is the single most common cause of death in children between the ages of 5 and 14 in Cambodia, where more than half of the estimated 1,357 victims in 2012 were under the age of 15.

The WHO’s new report highlights its efforts to tackle the problem among people living along the Tonle Sap river in Kompong Chhnang province, where since 2009 it has supported a daycare center for children whose parents are fishing or busy with other work.

Sao Sovanratnak, WHO’s technical officer on injury prevention in Cambodia, said parents should cover water hazards, such as wells, and fence off ponds. “People are not aware of simple measures to prevent their child from drowning,” he added.

According to Unicef, most children who drown in Cambodia are between the ages of 1 and 4, with 80 percent of accidents taking place within 20 meters of their home.

Denise Shepherd-Johnson, chief of communications for Unicef Cambodia, said her organization is working with the government to strengthen early-warning flooding alert systems and developing a school-based accident awareness program.

“Preventing child deaths by drowning will require continued concerted efforts by the government and development partners to build knowledge and skills within communities on how to keep children safe,” she said in an email.

For Ms. Savorn, who lost her grandson on Monday, a moment of carelessness will stay with her family forever.

“I want to tell other parents to be careful,” she said. “Parents should always look after their children and not be careless like me.”

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