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Report: Most children who drown are supervised

By Christy Oglesby

• Interactive: Facts on drowning
Red Cross

(CNN) -- As 30 revelers enjoyed a pool party, 7-year-old Paolo Ayala sank to his death. At least two hours passed before anyone noticed his absence, and a cloudy pool meant two days would elapse before anyone would see his body at the bottom of the pool.

The June 2002 death grieved the tony Los Angeles suburb where it occurred, and it shocked many who wondered how a child could drown with so many people present.

But recent research from the National SAFE KIDS Campaign shows that nearly 9 out of 10 children between ages 1 and 14 who drowned were under supervision when they died. The study defined supervision as being in someone's care, not necessarily in direct line of sight.

And as children begin summer breaks and families plan vacations near water, caregivers should be mindful of what constitutes adequate supervision because more than 900 children between 1 and 14 die each year in drowning accidents, according to SAFE KIDS.

Adequate supervision means not sitting poolside reading, socializing with guests, chatting on the phone, operating the grill or listening to music with a headset. Such distractions are deadly, child trauma experts said.

Drowning is a "silent killer," swimming and child medical experts said. It's not at all like the Hollywood dramatizations depicting floundering swimmers bobbing to the surface yelping for help for several minutes.

"Kids slip in the water like a pebble going under," said Dr. Marty Eichelberger, CEO of the National SAFE KIDS Campaign. "As they try to get themselves out of the water, they sorta streamline their bodies making this linear form, and it takes them straight to the bottom. They only have a minute or two before they loose consciousness. ... It is a silent thing because they are under the water. They are trying to get themselves to the point where they can breathe, and as they breathe, they just suck in more water."

Study specifics

The SAFE KIDS study examined data from 496 child-drowning deaths from 2000 and 2001 from 17 states and found that 88 percent of the drowning victims were under supervision.

And while drowning is the second leading injury-related killer of children ages 1 to 14 -- motor vehicle related deaths are first -- the study found that 55 percent of interviewed parents responded that there are some circumstances where it is acceptable for children to swim unsupervised.

Among the parents who said they supervise their young swimmers, many reported engaging in other activities simultaneously: talking to someone (38 percent), reading (18 percent), eating (17 percent) and using the phone (11 percent).

Stacey Grissom, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, said that organization advises all caregivers to practice "reach supervision."

"It's not good enough to be on the side reading a book or with a Walkman," she said. "You need to be right there so if something happens you can reach out your arm and you're no farther away than an arm's length from a child. ... You don't want to find out how quickly something can go wrong."

Water wisdom

SAFE KIDS advocates using four "water safety wisdoms" of supervision, environment, gear and education.

Specifically, skilled, attentive swimmers should serve as water watchers, keeping children in direct sight at all times; all pools or spas should be surrounded by 4-foot tall fences in addition to fences bordering the property; nonswimmers should wear U.S. Coast Guard approved life jackets when in or on water; and everyone should learn to swim by age 8.

Eichelberger said some people balk at installing additional fencing residential pools require. "Everybody says, 'Well, it's expensive.' Well, what is the value of a life?" he said. "That four-sided isolating fence can prevent up to 90 percent of residential pool drownings."

The SAFE KIDS study focused on child drowning deaths, but Eichelberger, who is the director of Emergency Trauma Services at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., said adults should also take safety precautions when enjoying the water.

"Because you can swim, does not mean you are drown proof," he said. When engaging in water sports or boating, swimmers should also wear Coast Guard-approved life jackets suitable for their size and weight.

"When you have a boating accident and you get hit in the head and get knocked out, you better have something to keep you afloat," Eichelberger said.

And Grissom, of the Red Cross, advises that adults should never swim alone.

"You can easily sustain a head or back injury, and if there is no one there," she said, "that makes it much harder to get help in an emergency."

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