Silent killer of our young

YESTERDAY was World Drowning Prevention Day. Many of us are unaware of the hidden dangers of ubiquitous water. Essentially, our own homes pose a risk to toddlers, and all bodies of water are potential sites of drowning for all, especially our children and young adults.

Between 500 and 700 drowning deaths occur annually in Malaysia with about 40% occurring among children below 18 years of age.

The World Health Organisation recently published the Regional Report on Drowning in the Western Pacific Region in conjunction with World Drowning Prevention Day. It takes stock of where countries are with respect to drowning prevention. Where does Malaysia stand? I would like to summarise the situation as reported from Malaysia and offer my comments.

We have had a Water Activity Safety Council in the Housing and Local Government Ministry since 2016 with representation from all relevant agencies both governmental and non-governmental. The council serves mainly as an advisory body and a coordination mechanism for inter-sectoral activities. It has developed a meticulous five-year plan with activities ranging from educational (mainly) and enhanced enforcement to environmental modification and other related activities.

Currently, the Fire and Rescue Department in the same ministry rightly bears the major brunt of the educational activities.

However, the enforcement and environmental (engineering) interventions depend on the priorities and resources at the local level, ie individual municipalities, pool owners (mainly hotels), beach patrols by community groups, training of lifesavers and many other groups.

Lack of both “official” and public awareness of drowning risk assessment and management, compounded by a lack of resources, pose major stumbling blocks to effective drowning prevention in Malaysia.

I draw a parallel with the National Road Safety Council which was set up with a similar structure and mechanisms in the Transport Ministry. Many of the activities of the Road Safety Council were taken over by the Road Safety Department, which has now been integrated with the Road Transport Department for reasons of efficiency. My advice to the Water Activity Safety Council is to learn from the experiences of the Road Safety Council and focus on activities at the local level by state governments.

Detailed data on drowning should be collected at the local level by a single agency and disseminated in a timely manner to relevant stakeholders for purposes of interventions.

With impending increased activities in the tourism sector when our economy re-opens soon, the risk of drowning will re-emerge. We should ever be vigilant of this silent killer of our young.


Senior professor at the Faculty of Medicine, AIMST University; co-chair, Committee on Data and Research, Water Activity Safety Council & former technical officer (injury prevention), Western Pacific Region, World Health Organisation

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