Child Drownings Believed High among Immigrants

August 28, 2006

Statistics indicate a disproportionately high rate of drowning among children from immigrant families in Washington state and cultural differences are likely involved, according to a Children’s Hospital researcher.

The review of drownings last year found drowning rates were generally higher among nonwhite children than for white children, a pattern also found in national statistics.

For example, Asian children 17 and younger accounted for 6.9 percent of the state’s population and 18.4 percent of the unexplained drowning deaths among children in that age group between 1999 and 2001.

Although the study did not specifically identify drowning victims by ethnic background, lead researcher Linda Quan and public health officials said the names indicated most of the minority child victims were from immigrant families.

While the reasons remain unclear, Quan and some Ethiopian and Vietnamese parents who met with her recently at the West Seattle public pool cited cultural differences in their countries of origin, including an absence of formal swimming lessons and low rates of adult proficiency in swimming.

“What was really eye-opening was that the experience people have in the prior country affects how they deal with a new activity in a new country,” Quan said. “If people didn’t have an organized approach to swimming or safety, they come without the background of knowing what safe behavior is around water.”

Nonnative parents are often less likely than native-born citizens to insist on having their children learn to swim, Quan and other researchers said.

“In a lot of countries, swimming isn’t thought of as a recreation. It’s for work, like fishing. Lives are more about making money to survive,” said Diane Jones, co-coordinator of the West Seattle pool, “but here in the Northwest, water is so much of a part of our recreation — sailing, kayaking.”

Lam Ha, watching children get instruction from a swimming coach, said he never learned to swim while growing up as the son of a couple that owned a grocery store in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City.

“In Vietnam, if you want to learn how to swim like this, you have to be a rich person,” Ha said.

To help inform such parents of free swimming lessons for third- and fourth-graders, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department prints brochures for the program in 12 languages.

Muluka Ali, an immigrant from Ethiopia, said that in villages she remembered, children learned to swim informally from older siblings or others, mostly in lakes and rivers without lifeguards or other protections.

Now, concerned for the safety of her children Bowna, 10, Sartu, 8, and Ridwan, 5, she said, “I want them to learn everything and take care of themselves.”

Teenagers have cited the problem of peer pressure, Quan said, describing them as saying, “Even if we don’t swim or swim well (and) our friends are going swimming, we’re going to go just to be with them.”

Some of those teens said they considered drowning a matter of fate, Quan said.

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