“I shook his hand and said see you on Friday.” Those were the last words Ian Jones said to his son Tom after dropping him back at his dormitory at the University of Worcester in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Through a sequence of tragic consequences and unanswered questions, his drowned body was pulled from the River Severn 9 days later.
Tom, an avid football fan, aware of the chronic shortage of positive male role models, had just started studying to become a primary school teacher. Joining hundreds of other university students starting a new chapter in their lives, Tom celebrated his first week at university with friends and roommates. The coronial inquest finding that Tom drowned, suspected to have occurred while trying to help someone else in difficulty, was one of over 19 000 such deaths that occur in the WHO European Region every year.
Tom’s mother Vicki holds her head as she recounts the moment that police family liaison officers called and asked if she was sitting down. “That’s when my whole world just fell apart.”
“Tom was an athletic boy and a strong and confident swimmer, but in hindsight I would have talked more about cold water shock, about what to do if he inadvertently fell in the water, about how to float until he reached safety, about how alcohol and water don’t mix,” she said. Such a reaction, from a devoted parent, is as natural as it is heart-breaking that she believes she could have done more for her son.
Tom’s parents, Vicki and Ian, made a promise to each other: “I won’t let you fall apart, and you will do the same for me.” It was that commitment that would lead these brave parents to share their story, advocating for more awareness of drowning and how it can seemingly happen to anyone. Vicki and her family have become active volunteers with the Royal Life Saving Society, the United Kingdom’s drowning prevention charity and leading provider of water safety education. “I will do whatever I can to prevent another family from having to going through the same horror we do,” says Vicki of her driving motivation.
The new World Day on Drowning Prevention
This year, 25 July marks the inaugural World Day on Drowning Prevention. This latest addition to the United Nations calendar of official days was adopted by all Member States of the United Nations in a resolution earlier this year – calling for greater attention and action on a public health disaster that globally claims a life every 2 minutes worldwide, or 235 000 people every year.
In leading the United Nations negotiations for this resolution, Ireland together with Bangladesh highlighted a key message about drowning and prevention in the European Region. “Relative to the rest of the world, our numbers are low, but regionally drowning is still a leading cause of death in countries of Europe. We must do even more because so many people are still senselessly lost,” said Martin O’Sullivan, Chairman of Water Safety Ireland, the government organization tasked with preventing drowning.
WHO’s related work with Member States and stakeholders is not new. The first global report was published in 2014 and followed up in 2017 with further guidance and recommendations on evidence-based strategies to prevent and respond to drowning. Further technical support, specifically on swimming skills and supervision programmes, will be released during the commemoration.
“The epidemiology of drowning in the WHO European Region is different to the rest of the world,” said Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “In Europe, drowning most commonly occurs in middle-aged males and is predominantly associated with recreational activities. But as we have seen from the recent devastating floods in western Europe, climate change presents a new and frightening level of risk for a range of health consequences, including drowning, that have not been properly recognized,” warned Dr Kluge.
Recognizing that drowning in Europe has specificities that need to be properly addressed, WHO/Europe Programme Manager for Injury Prevention, Jonathon Passmore, said, “WHO will continue to build the technical guidance and evidence-based strategies that can inform prevention of drowning wherever and to whomever it occurs.”
For families like the Jones, a wider understanding of drowning, how it occurs and, most importantly, how it can be prevented are a small comfort.
“It would be like Tom didn’t die for nothing,” says Vicki with a forced smile.