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Florida hospital warns of 'dangerous' spike in pool-related drownings: What to know

Heading to a pool this weekend? Here is some advice on how to stay safe.

Parents looking forward to spending a fun Memorial Day weekend with their kids at a place with a pool may want to review water safety protocols before leaving home.

A Florida Hospital has issued an alert, warning about a “dangerous spike in child pool-related drownings among vacationers.” From March to April 2021, the Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children has seen a 600% rise in submersions in children, some critical and some fatal, compared to the same time last year, with the majority of the submersions in children under age 3.

Dr. Guohua Li isn’t surprised by the alert.

“That warning from Florida applies to the rest of the country in terms of the size of the problem," said Li, a professor of epidemiology and anesthesiology and the founding director of the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York. “The highest risk group for drowning is 2-year-olds. Their risk is about three times as high as the rest of the population.”

Each year there are about 360 drowning deaths among 2-year-olds, Li said. “That’s almost one death per day,” he added.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers tips for keeping kids safe from drowning:

  • Learn the skills that can save your child’s life: Learning basic swimming skills — floating and moving through the water and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) may make the difference between life and death.
  • Make sure swimming pools are fenced off: An isolation fence, with self–closing and self–latching gates, can help keep children away from potential danger when parents aren’t close enough to supervise.
  • Equip your kids with a life jacket: Children should wear life jackets in and around natural bodies of water, such as lakes or the ocean, even if they know how to swim. And for children who aren’t strong swimmers, life jackets can be used in and around pools too.
  • Keep a close eye on your children: Whether your kids are in or near the water, closely supervise them at all times. Because drowning can happen quickly and quietly, you should avoid distractions.

The hospital’s alert contained another piece of advice: Keep younger kids within an arm’s length, so you can get to them quickly if they start to slip under the water.

From Li’s perspective, the most important piece of advice is to get your children swimming lessons, even when they are young. “Young children can learn to float even before they learn to walk,” Li said. “I think a good time to begin swimming lessons is when children are between 2 and 7.”

And that’s especially true, Li said, if the parents don’t know how to swim. “In the U.S., only half the adult population can swim,” he added.

“In the pediatric population as a whole, swimming skills are acquired only by half of children by the time they graduate from high school,” Li said. “The numbers are worse for minority children. For white children, about 65% learn how to swim, as compared to Black and Hispanic children, only 40% of whom can swim by the time they graduate from high school.”

Drowning risk isn’t the only thing to worry about when swimming in pools and other manmade bodies of water that have been treated with chlorine or bromine to kill off nasty bugs that can make you sick. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes 208 disease outbreaks due to two pathogens: cryptosporidium and Legionella bacteria (the cause of Legionnaire’s disease) associated with swimming pools and hot tubs.

These outbreaks resulted in at least 3,646 cases of illness, 286 hospitalizations and 13 deaths. Most of the outbreaks were due to cryptosporidium, a parasite that unfortunately isn’t killed off by the chemicals used to treat pool water. It causes watery diarrhea and abdominal cramping while it’s in your system (the parasites procreate, leaving oocysts to be expelled in your poop, and then die off).

Legionella, the CDC found, was being transmitted when aerosolized water droplets produced by hot tub jets were inhaled. The bacteria can cause severe pneumonia, fever and flu-like symptoms.

The biggest way to protect yourself and your children from cryptosporidium in pools is to make sure you don’t swallow any of the water you’re swimming in, said Dr. Aaron Milstone, a professor of pediatric infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Ultimately, Milstone said, “I think people need to understand that these are uncommon events and you have to balance the risks with the benefits. The cryptosporidium parasite doesn’t cause a life-threatening disease. As temperatures go up, it’s nice to have a reprieve from the heat."

“We have a community pool and I will be going there this weekend when it opens.”