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Drowning deaths in South Africa: do the numbers add up?

Is drowning the second most common form of accidental death in South Africa? Are 30% of its victims under 14? Do most drownings happen away from the ocean? We examine three claims in a Cape Talk interview with the National Sea Rescue Institute on world drowning prevention day.

  • To mark UN world drowning day, Cape Talk interviewed the National Sea Rescue Institute’s drowning prevention manager about the incidence of drowning in South Africa. Several claims were made during the radio show.
  • The claim that drowning is the country’s second leading cause of accidental death is incorrect. Stats SA data puts it at fifth place, and it would be more accurate to simply say it’s in the top five.
  • It’s mostly correct that about 30% of the victims of drowning are children under the age of 14. But there’s no publicly available data to back the claim that 95% of South African drownings occur inland.

It’s summertime in South Africa, and people are heading to the pool and the beach. But along with the fun comes the risk of drowning. 

On 25 July 2021 the United Nations observed its first world drowning prevention day. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 236,000 people drown across the globe every year.  

The day was commemorated by South Africa’s National Sea Rescue Institute, or NSRI. This voluntary organisation has 44 stations around the country to respond to water emergencies

To raise awareness about the risk of drowning, Sara-Jayne King, a talk show host on Cape Talk radio, interviewed NSRI drowning prevention manager Andrew Ingram. 

King and Ingram made several claims about drowning in South Africa. We looked at the available evidence.

Claim

“Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death in South Africa after road accidents.”

Verdict

Incorrect

King made this claim. She told Africa Check the information came from the NSRI. 

Accidental deaths are unintentional deaths caused by environmental events or other factors such as water or fire. 

Dr Jill Fortuin is a research specialist and the executive director of drowning prevention at the NSRI. She told Africa Check the claim was incorrect. “From the sources, the most common designation on the burden disease would place drowning as the fifth leading cause of accidental death in South Africa.”

1,444 drowning deaths in 2018

The latest Statistics South Africa data on causes of death is from 2018. That year, drowning was ranked as the fifth leading cause of accidental death in South Africa, with 1,444 deaths.

The top cause of accidental death was accidental exposure to “other and unspecified factors”, followed by exposure to inanimate mechanical forces. This category includes accidental death by firearm, knife, sword and other objects. 

Drowning in top five causes of accidental death

Africa Check also spoke to Dr Colleen Saunders from the University of Cape Town's Emergency Medicine division and Prof Ashley van Niekerk from the University of South Africa’s institute for social and health sciences. They are both specialists in drowning research. 

They said that drowning ranked third in the South African Medical Research Council’s (SAMRC) injury mortality survey. But this was in 2009

The SAMRC has completed a 2017 injury mortality survey, due to be published in the next couple of months, said Prof Richard Matzopoulos, co-director of the SAMRC’s burden of disease research unit. (Note: We will link to the publication once it is available.)

Megan Prinsloo, a specialist scientist and the lead author of this study, sent us the 2017 figures. Drowning is ranked fourth. 

Traffic accidents were the leading cause of accidental death followed by surgical or medical causes.

“I think that a more accurate statement would be that drowning is in the top five causes of unintentional injury deaths in South Africa in all age groups,” said Saunders.

Claim

“About 450, or 30% [of drowning deaths] are children under the age of 14.”

Verdict

Mostly Correct

The NSRI’s Fortuin told Africa Check that the statistic was calculated from several sources. These included the NSRI’s internal records of fatal drownings, media reports and population registration data.  

The figures give the average number of deaths across four years, from 2016 to 2019, said Fortuin. They were rounded off to “keep it simple for listeners or readers to remember”, according to Ingram.  

But the data has not been collected and analysed according to scientific “research protocol”. This means it hasn’t been peer reviewed, Fortuin told us. 

“Our intention is to publish a report in a peer-reviewed publication,” she said. The organisation will also advocate “for the accurate collection and reporting of drowning data in South Africa”. 

Published research somewhat confirms claim

Fortuin said the NSRI data was cross-checked with published research to “add validity” to it. She referred us to an article on drowning published in the journal Injury Prevention in 2019. 

The study sourced data on fatal drowning incidents between 2005 and 2016 from the Western Cape’s forensic pathology services. A total of 1,391 fatal drownings were recorded in the province during this period. Of these, 432 were children under the age of 14. 

This means “31.5% of fatal drowning deaths” were of children under 14, Saunders said. She was the lead author of the study. 

Although the data is only for the Western Cape, one of South Africa’s nine provinces, it “represents the most accurate estimates”, she told us. “For SA as a whole, it’s a little more difficult to estimate.” 

Findings in an article published in the South African Medical Journal in 2018 do “suggest that 40% of fatal drownings occur in children under the age of 15 years". 

But the study, which reviewed published information from 1995 to 2016, was limited because most of the data was from urban areas and used vital registration data, which excluded drowning victims whose bodies had not been recovered.  

WHO estimates 27% of drowning victims are under 14

The WHO’s global health observatory collects South African mortality statistics from vital registration data, such as death certificates and verbal autopsy reports.

The observatory estimates there were 2,403 drowning deaths in South Africa in 2019, with 639 (27%) of the victims children aged 14 and under. 

According to the available information, we rate the claim as mostly correct.

Claim

“about 95%” of South African drownings occur inland”

Verdict

Unproven

Inland waters are away from coastlines and include rivers, dams, lakes and ponds. The coast is where the ocean meets land. 

But drowning can happen in any body of water, including swimming pools, bathtubs, water storage tanks and floods.

The NSRI only has rescue bases at inland water bodies and the coast. But Fortuin said their data includes drownings “across all bodies of water”. 

No data available to back claim 

Van Niekerk told us that in the Western Cape, inland drownings in rivers, canals, ponds, dams and lakes “amounted to 49%” of all drownings. 

Saunders confirmed this and directed us to the 2019 Injury Prevention study as the source. This says 684, or 49%, of drowning deaths were in inland waters.

But this is only for the Western Cape and “will obviously differ by province”, Saunders said.

In the Western Cape, “drownings in oceans and lagoons amounted to 28.6% of all drownings”, said Van Niekerk. This is also from the 2019 study, which records 398 drownings in oceans and lagoons.

We could not find national data.  

Swimming pools seem a high risk for drowning

The 2018 study by Saunders and others found that in Gauteng, 50% of drownings were in home settings such as swimming pools or bathtubs. 

Netcare, a South African healthcare provider, found that 79% of drownings from 2011 to 2015 were swimming pools. But this only included Netcare patients. 

Due to the lack of data on the claim, we rate it unproven.

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