Vietnamese children drowning at increasingly alarming rates

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The Khang Nhat Secondary School opened the new school year on a somber note.

The opening ceremony included a moment of silence for four 9th graders who drowned in a nearby river just a day earlier.

On Sunday (September 4), 12 students from the mountainous Son Duong District in Tuyen Quang Province went to a cave and had to wade across a shallow section of the Pho Day River, after parking their bikes at Pham Van But's house on the riverside at around 2 p.m.

But said he heard the students call for help ten minutes after they had left his house. He rushed outside and tried to rescue the drowning children.

After giving CPR to one of the  students, Hoang Thi Thu Thao, who was rescued by another local, But plunged into the river with several other locals but they were too late.

The first body was salvaged at around 4 p.m. and the fourth at 6 a.m. on Monday morning downstream along the rapidly flowing river.

In another case, on September 2, six 6th graders from Trang Viet Secondary School in Hanoi's Me Linh District drowned when their boat capsized on the Hong (Red) River.

The accident happened at around noon when the schoolgirls attempted to pick water hyacinth flowers at a river section around three meters deep. They had just left a National Day party.

Le Viet Quen, a local living nearby, managed to rescue one student who nearly drowned.

The 6th graders were among a group of 11 students who'd gathered at the riverside after the party ended. Seven of them got into a small boat while four others stayed ashore.

The bodies of six students, all aged 12, were recovered later on the same day.

The incidents are tragic but common in a country that sees an average of ten children die from drowning everyday.

When 19 southern provinces launched an anti-drowning campaign on August 29, Tran Thanh Binh, deputy chairman of Vietnam Women's Association, said deaths caused by drowning in Vietnam are four times higher than other developing countries. She said the accidents occurred mainly in the Mekong and Red River deltas and in central coastal provinces.

According to statistics released by the Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs at the 2011 World Conference on Drowning Prevention in the coastal city of Da Nang this May, more than 6,000 children drown in Vietnam every year. In 2007, the total was only 3,786 deaths.

Experts have called for better awareness from parents and actions from governmental agencies to provide swimming training for children.

Nguyen Thi Thanh An, UNICEF Childhood Injury Prevention Specialist, said Vietnam could prevent such fatalities with better laws and enforcement, for example the enforcement of water safety regulations such as wearing a life-vest and safe waterway transportation.

"Vietnam has more than 2,300 river wharfs with more than 5,000 ships, boats, and ferries in operation, but many of these boats are not equipped with sufficient lifejackets and flotation devices. In addition, many beaches and waterways are not patrolled by lifeguards," she told Thanh Nien Weekly.

She said there should be better public awareness raised through mass media, inter-personal communication by community workers and swimming courses in school.

An said communities should eliminate hazards for children like fencing off water bodies in residential areas and putting safety covers on water tanks, wells, buckets, etc.

"There is still limited awareness among the general public, especially children and child caregivers, about child drowning risks and preventive measures," she said.

According to a recent study on life jacket utilization in Vietnam, more than 46 percent of children who should wear life jackets regularly do not.

The study conducted by the Health Environment Management Agency and the National Institute of Labor Protection interviewed 375 high school students in Dong Thap. Researchers found 93.7 percent of those surveyed had positive awareness of life jacket usage. However, only 15.93 percent of them utilized life jackets.

Le Hong Diep Chi of the Department of Public Sports and Gymnastics at the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, suggested that swimming lessons be given to children along with rescue training for adults.

"One of the major causes of child drowning in Vietnam is children's lack of swimming skills. Teaching swimming and developing skills among children is an effective approach to bring about reductions in the number of drowning incidents," she said.

According to the labor ministry, research into drowning incidents in the Mekong Delta showed that 84 percent of the children who drowned did not know how to swim.

In the last nine years, the department organized hundreds of training sessions in swimming and rescuing, especially in the Mekong Delta region where there is a high rate of child drowning.

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