Nanaimo doctor targets tragic toll of childhood drowning deaths in Bangladesh

June 4, 2014

NANAIMO – In Canada, concerns about the risk of drowning, rise with the temperature each summer as young people take to the water for fun. In Bangladesh and many other parts of Southeast Asia, hazards around water are year-round and part of daily life in rural areas where very young children cross rivers and ponds on footbridges that are often no more than narrow, slippery poles.

“There is an enormous toll from drowning in Bangladesh and neighbouring countries,” says Dr. Steve Beerman, a Nanaimo family physician and Clinical Associate Professor with the University of British Columbia’s family practice training program at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital.

“It is the leading cause of death for young children in Bangladesh – close to 17,000 a year,” says Beerman who recently returned from the project site in Raiganj, a rural community in the flood-prone country east of India. “There’s the potential to reduce the mortality rate by 50 per cent.”

Beerman is working with colleagues in Bangladesh to save lives of children through a $100,000 pilot project that will teach young children basic survival skills in the water and increases supervision of very young children so they are less likely to fall in.

The mortality rate throughout Bangladesh is 55 deaths per 100,000 children. In Canada, the mortality rate from drowning is close to one child in 100,000 for those under the age of five. Even the highest risk group in Canada, males 18 to 24, have a mortality rate from drowning of just over two per 100,000.

The pilot project is aimed at teaching basic swimming survival skills to 1,000 children in Raiganj and establishing supervision in neighbourhood care centres for another 1,000 children six days a week.

Beerman joined Bangladesh government officials and representatives of the World Health Organization in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on May 31 for the official launch of the lifesaving initiative. The project is financed by a grant from a federal government program known as Grand Challenges Canada’s Stars in Global Health. If the initiative is successful, the project will be eligible for a $1 million grant to expand the program to other regions.

Beerman is excited by the opportunity to employ more than 100 Bangladesh project workers and demonstrate practical ways to increase water safety. His commitment to saving lives around the water dates back to his work as a swimming instructor and lifeguard in Powell River where he had hands-on experience saving people from drowning. As an emergency room physician at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital, he gained further experience treating patients who had nearly drowned.

He began researching various aspects of water safety and medical care for near-drowning cases. Beerman’s work in the field of drowning rescue and prevention led to leadership roles as president of the Lifesaving Society of Canada and president of the International Life Saving Federation.

The Bangladesh project involves survival swimming instructions, teaching children aged five to 14 how to get upright and keep their heads above water for 30 seconds and how to propel themselves 10 metres. The goal is to teach the basic skills in three classes of 30 minutes each.

The project had to be developed with respect for regional culture and beliefs, says Beerman. The swimming lessons are conducted in scaffold-like structures on the edges of ponds so the children are in familiar water rather than the strange environment of a swimming pool.

The broader goals of promoting water safety and rescue techniques have been adapted to respect the beliefs of some that a drowning child should not be rescued or revived – that the fate of the boy or girl was meant to be and it’s bad luck to interfere.

Beerman says even those who do want to revive a drowning victim may use ineffective techniques such as spinning the victim or wrapping the child in leaves. Another facet of the pilot project is to convene village meetings if there is a drowning to discuss the incident and how it might have been prevented.

The prospect of reducing the annual toll of 17,000 childhood drowning deaths by half in the country of 162 million is a goal Beerman knows is more than worthwhile.


Cutline: Nanaimo physician Dr. Steve Beerman, right, confers with Dr Aminur Rahman, field work Leader in Bangladesh and Director of the International Drowning Research Centre-Bangladesh, on the Bangladesh Anchal and SwimSafe Project. (photo on Flickr)

Media Contacts:

Bruce Patterson
Island Health Communications