High winds send waves crashing into the breakwater at the Don D. Statter Harbor in Auke Bay in January 2016.

High winds send waves crashing into the breakwater at the Don D. Statter Harbor in Auke Bay in January 2016.

Drowning-death rate declines slightly statewide

Alaska has more miles of coastline than the rest of the United States combined, and also the highest rate of drowning deaths in the nation. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Service is working to change that.

In a recently released bulletin, the department found that Alaska’s overall drowning-death rate has decreased slightly over the past five years. Between 2013 and 2015, 143 people drowned in the state — an average annual age-adjusted rate 6.3 people per 100,000. That’s down from the rate of 6.5 recorded between 2010 and 2012.

But the department also found that “the death rate among children aged 0–9 years increased by 36 percent” between those two time periods, according to the bulletin.

Most of those deaths were recorded in the southwest, southeast and Gulf regions of the state.

“We’re talking small numbers, but you’d like to see no increase at all, and that’s just something we have to keep bringing attention to,” Deborah Hull-Jilly, the bulletin’s principal author, told the Empire in a phone interview Wednesday.

Children younger than 9 years old accounted for 11 of the total 143 drowning deaths of the past two years, according to Hull-Jilly, an injury epidemiologist with DHSS.

Of the 11 children who drowned in the past two years, 10 were unattended just before they died. This is a common trend in child drowning deaths, Hull-Jilly said, and one she said she hopes the health department can reverse.

“Children are the most inquisitive little creatures on this earth,” she said. “They’re wonderful, but that curiosity can lead them into danger. It only takes a split second for them to wander off and find themselves in trouble.”

The state launched its “Kids Don’t Float” program in the late 1990s to address Alaska’s high child and youth drowning rate. The program is most known for its life-jacket loaner stations.

When it comes to preventing child drowning deaths, the best thing parents or guardians can do is be aware of their child’s whereabouts, Hull-Jilly said.

“You still need that supervision,” she said, adding that swimming lessons aren’t enough.

By tracking the numbers and causes of drowning deaths, Hull-Jilly said DHSS can help organizations such as the U.S. Coast Guard in formulating water-safety programs. The Coast Guard is one of the partners in the Kids Don’t Float program.

“That’s the idea behind this bulletin: to promote knowledge and awareness,” she said. “The idea is to put it out there to empower people to make better choices.”

Among the more surprising findings of the report, its author said, were the number of people who died while bathing. In the last two years, 13 people while bathing. That figure also includes several people who drowned while in a hot tub, likely attributable to the presence of alcohol or prescription drugs while hot tubbing.

The majority of drowning deaths between 2013 and 2015 were boating related, as has been the case in the past. Seventy five people have died while boating in the past five years.

• Contact reporter Sam DeGrave at 523-2279 or at sam.degrave@juneauempire.com.

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