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Keeping our heads above water: A systematic review of fatal drowning in South Africa

C.J. Saunders
D. Sewduth
N. Naidoo


Background. Drowning is defined as the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in liquid, and can have one of three  outcomes – no morbidity, morbidity or mortality. The World Health Organization African region accounts for approximately 20% of global drowning, with a drowning mortality rate of 13.1 per 100 000 population. The strategic implementation of intervention programmes driven by evidence-based decisions is of prime importance in resource-limited settings such as South Africa (SA).

Objective. To review the available epidemiological data on fatal drowning in SA in order to identify gaps in the current knowledge base and priority intervention areas.

Methods. A systematic review of published literature was conducted to review the available epidemiological data describing fatal drowning in SA. In addition, an internet search for grey literature, including technical reports, describing SA fatal drowning epidemiology was conducted.

Results. A total of 13 published research articles and 27 reports obtained through a grey literature search met the inclusion and exclusion criteria. These 40 articles and reports covered data collection periods between 1995 and 2016, and were largely focused on urban settings. The fatal drowning burden in SA is stable at approximately 3.0 per 100 000 population, but is increasing as a proportion of all non-natural deaths. Drowning mortality rates are high in children aged <15 years, particularly in those aged <5.

Conclusions. This review suggests that SA drowning prevention initiatives are currently confined to the early stages of an effective injury prevention strategy. The distribution of mortality across age groups and drowning location differs  substantially between urban centres and provinces. There is therefore a need for detailed drowning surveillance to monitor national trends and identify risk factors in all SA communities.