Half as many kids are sent to the hospital after almost drowning than were two decades ago, according to a new study that suggests public health education campaigns about drowning risks may be working.
Researchers found that hospitalization rates dropped in both boys and girls, and in all age groups, from babies through teenagers.
The findings are consistent with recent research suggesting that fewer kids are dying from drowning now than were in the past.
"I think there have been some very good efforts...to try to educate parents on the importance of helping to prevent drowning at all points in childhood development," said Stephen Bowman, from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, who led the study.
Those efforts include encouraging parents to install fences around backyard pools and to make sure kids wear life preservers in open water.
Bowman and his colleagues used a national database that included information on eight million people admitted to about 1,000 hospitals annually to estimate the total number of kids in the U.S. hospitalized for near-drowning.
In 1993, they calculated that an estimated 3,623 kids and teens aged 19 and under were admitted to the hospital after almost drowning, compared to 1,781 in 2008.
That works out to between four and five of every 100,000 U.S. youth being hospitalized annually in the early study years, down to two to three per 100,000 in the most recent years.
The researchers reported Monday in Pediatrics that the drop was due largely to a decreasing number of hospitalizations in southern and western states -- though in those regions more kids are still hospitalized for near-drowning than in the Northeast and Midwest.
Based on their findings, they also estimated that the number of kids who died after being hospitalized fell from approximately 359 in 1993 to 207 in 2008. That doesn't include kids and teens who drowned and were pronounced dead before making it to the hospital.
Bowman noted that the data can't tell the story of what happens to kids who survive once they're released from the hospital -- which would be important to understanding the true burden of drowning and near-drowning incidents in U.S. kids.
"It's hard to answer the tougher question of, 'Is there long-term cognitive brain damage as a result of (almost) drowning for some of these children?'" Bowman told Reuters Health.
Dr. Gary Smith, head of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, said the findings can't attribute the decline to any one specific public health intervention, but they suggest that parent education efforts are starting to work.
"This trend, this was really remarkable," said Smith, who is also the president of the Child Injury Prevention Alliance, and was not involved in the new study.
However, he told Reuters Health, it's not time to get complacent.
"While this study shows that we're making really good progress, especially in the western and southern regions of our country, we have some sobering data still that this remains one of the leading causes of death among children," Smith said.
"We have still a lot of work to do."
Researchers said that parents always have to stay vigilant when kids and water are mixed.
"Leaving children unattended even for a moment around a swimming pool, especially toddlers -- it's just a recipe for a disaster. It's something we can't reinforce enough," Bowman said.
"Parents need to make sure they're not leaving kids alone, whether it's in the bathtub, or in open water around rivers or lakes, or in a backyard swimming pool."