Alaska ranks first in unintentional drownings in the nation

A Mat-Su woman and her son drowned in the Matanuska River this June, swept away by the current. The remains of a man who drowned in the Kuskokwim River over two years ago were recovered in May.

These stories are among the thousands of victims subject to drowning in Alaskan waters. Alaska is ranked No. 1 in death by unintentional drowning in the nation, according to the 2016 State of Alaska Epidemiology Bulletin.

Alaska’s drowning rate is also three times higher than that of the nation and doubles Hawaii, the state with the next highest rate. Moreover, unintentional drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury or death among children ages 1 – 14 in the U.S., adding up to about one in five of drowning victims, according to a 1996 – 1998 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

One reason for Alaska’s contribution to the state and national rates of drowning is the national swimming literacy rate. More than half of Americans can’t swim, according to a Red Cross survey. The survey also found that 80 percent of American adults claim to be capable of swimming, but 44 percent of those adults also admitted to not being able to pass a basic swimming test.

“I think swimming is an important life skill to have, but I didn’t grow up around water, so I never learned,” Kaylie Izykowski, UAA sophomore, said. “My brother almost drowned recently, and that inspired me to try to learn.”

There are many ways that Alaskans contribute to the nation’s swimming incapability. Dominique Aboud, a second year psychology major and YMCA employee, believes that Alaska doesn’t provide residents with enough tools to learn how to swim well.

“I could probably count how many pools we have in Alaska,” she said. “I think there’s less available opportunities to learn.”

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Alaska is ranked 42 out of the 50 states for pool companies per capita with one pool for around every 60,000 people, according to data from Porch. This greatly contrasts the No. 1 state, Arizona, with one pool for about every 9,000 residents.

This lack of pools forces Alaskans to rely on natural bodies of water to fill their swimming needs, leading to an increased risk of drowning. Of the 235 non-occupational drowning deaths recorded in the 2014 State of Alaska Epidemiology Bulletin, 36 percent were in a river, 22 percent were in the ocean and 16 percent in a lake or pond.

Aboud also says parents aren’t signing their children up for swimming lessons early enough.

“I teach lessons to kids ages 3 to 10, and a lot of them are older,” she said. “If they haven’t experienced water at a young age, they’re more scared.”

Despite the still high rates of drowning, efforts are being made to reduce those numbers. Programs such as “Kids Don’t Float” are in place to raise awareness of drowning and water safety in Alaska. The Red Cross also launched a campaign in 2014 that focuses on reducing the drowning rate of the nation by focusing on 50 cities for five years.

Another YMCA employee, Amanda Hanley, views swimming as a necessity and was concerned about the swimming rates of the country.

“Everybody should know how to swim,” Hanley said. “It’s a life saving skill.”