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Drowning deaths in Alaska down but still lead nation

Devin Kelly

Alaska has the highest number of unintentional drowning deaths in the nation, according to a recent state epidemiology bulletin.

But officials noted that the statistic has declined markedly over the years, likely signaling the effectiveness of public awareness campaigns like the "Kids Don't Float" program.

Between 2007 and 2012, the Alaska Drowning Surveillance System recorded 300 drowning deaths. The state Department of Health And Social Services then worked with the Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics and the state medical examiner's office to determine the circumstances of each death.

In 2010, the latest year data could be compared nationally, Alaska continued to have the highest drowning rate in the country, said Deborah Hull-Jilly, health program manager and injury epidemiologist with the state health department's division of epidemiology.

But she said strides are being made, particularly when it comes to drowning deaths among children. For children up to age 9, the drowning rate between 2007 and 2012 was 2.6 per 100,000, a decrease of 45 percent over the previous six years.

According to the bulletin, released Tuesday, a total of 65 drowning deaths, or 22 percent overall, were occupational. Of those, nearly 70 percent involved boating activities, most commonly in the ocean or a harbor.

Occupational deaths were most commonly preceded by a fall overboard from a boat or vessel, and weather was the most frequent contributing factor, the report said. Forty-two percent of the victims were Alaska residents.

By contrast, 235 people drowned in non-occupational circumstances between 2007 and 2012. Some characteristics of those deaths were the following, according to the bulletin:

• 85 people drowned in connection with boating activities. Of those, 48 people were not known to be wearing a personal flotation device at the time, and 29 were suspected or confirmed to have consumed alcohol prior to the incident.

• 36 percent of the deaths occurred in a river, 22 percent in the ocean, and 16 percent in a lake or pond.

• 43 percent of the 201 adult deaths overall were suspected or confirmed to have involved alcohol.

• 49 percent of the boating victims were in motorboats, and 32 percent were in canoes, kayaks or inflatable crafts.

• 25 percent were riding ATVs or snowmachines. Of those deaths, 18 percent occurred while the person was attempting to hydroplane a snowmachine across an open body of water.

• 9 percent of the deaths occurred in bathtubs or hot tubs, and the majority of those deaths involved alcohol, illegal drugs or prescribed medication.

To help curb the statistics, officials advise avoiding alcohol use and wearing a life jacket while boating and checking weather forecasts. People are also advised to avoid using alcohol or other drugs while bathing, to never leave a child unattended around water, and never hydroplane snowmachines over open water.

"A lot of people have that attitude, 'It's never going to happen to me'," Hull-Jilly said in a phone interview Tuesday. "That might be the last time."

Read the full bulletin here: http://www.epi.alaska.gov/bulletins/docs/b2014_08.pdf

Reach Devin Kelly at dkelly@adn.com or 257-4314.


By DEVIN KELLY
dkelly@adn.com