African-American Kids Don't Have to Drown

Researchers offer ways to cut disproportionate drownings among black youth.

June 20, 2010, 3:31 PM

June 20, 2010— -- Monday marks the official start of summer, which, for many Americans, means visits to the pool or trips to the beach.

But the American Academy of Pediatrics is urging caution when it comes to summer splashing. Drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury-related death for those younger than 19 and can be prevented, the group says.

One demographic in particular, African-Americans, is threatened by the statistic. Black children drown at a rate more than three times that of white children.

While 40 percent of white children were found to have low or no swimming ability, the same was true for nearly 70 percent of African-American children, a USA Swimming survey finds. Latino children also lag in their swimming level, with 58 percent at low or no swimming ability.

African-American children with parents who themselves do not know how to swim are less likely to know or to be encouraged to learn how. And, as for why African-Americans show less of a proclivity for swimming, several reasons are apparently to blame.

African-Americans say that a lack of access to pools, the expense of swimming lessons and the idea that recreational swimming is a culturally white activity are factors that inhibit them from learning how to swim, according to the study, which was commissioned by the national governing body of competitive swimming USA Swimming and released last month.

The most common reason cited by African-Americans for not knowing how to swim, however, was a fear of drowning.

The study was conducted by the University of Memphis between Feb. 1, 2010, and May 26, 2010, and surveyed more than 2,000 children and parents at YMCAs in six cities across the United States: Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Memphis, Minneapolis and San Diego.

"We were awestruck by the focus group participants' stories, which revealed how deeply rooted the 'fear factor' is embedded," said Richard Irwin, who led the team of researchers together with his wife, Carol Irwin.

"Using solutions outlined by our focus groups and some minority swimming programs already in place, we can positively affect the ... drowning rates, and infuse the sport of swimming with much needed diversity," Carol Irwin said.

Even Toddlers Can Benefit From Swim Lessons

The end to this potentially deadly cycle lies in parents taking precautionary action and making sure their children know how to swim, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The group recommends that parents watch children at all times when in or near a pool and that parents take other measures such as installing protective fences to ensure their children's safety.

And the academy has concluded separately that younger children may benefit from swimming classes, a reversal of its earlier position that recommended against such lessons for toddlers.

New data suggested that early swim training may actually lower drowning rates in children under the age of 4. Because there is no evidence that such training can do harm, the group said it revised its position.

The organization had recommended for years against swimming lessons for children between the ages of 1 and 3 years old.

"We're no longer against swimming lessons for these younger kids, but we're certainly not saying that everybody needs to rush out and get their kids swimming lessons," Dr. Jeffrey Weiss, the lead author of the Academy of Pediatrics' Policy Statement on Drowning Prevention and pediatric hospitalist at Phoenix Children's Hospital in Arizona, told "Good Morning America."

ABC News' Suzan Clarke and Sabrina Parise contributed to this story.

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