Main content

The Silent Epidemic

Drowning is the cause of a quarter of a million child fatalities every year. Mark Whitaker reports from Bangladesh and Vietnam.

Everybody assumes that the biggest killers of children in poor countries are diseases like cholera, pneumonia and dysentery. Yet it's not actually true - in countries like Bangladesh drowning is the number one killer and it's a leading cause of death across south-east Asia.

That's a quarter of a million child fatalities every year - as many as all the children and adults who drowned in the Asian tsunami of 2004. Yet because most child drownings go unrecorded and because they happen in ones and twos every day, rather than in one great cataclysmic event, the problem has gone largely un-reported. It's a hidden killer - a 'silent epidemic'.

Mark Whitaker reports from Bangladesh and Vietnam - where the problem was identified with the help of the first US Ambassador to the country after the war, Pete Peterson. An ex-fighter pilot who spent six years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, Peterson founded The Alliance for Safe Children which led the research that revealed the problem, and now leads a large drowning prevention programme.

Children drown in these countries because there are so many ponds, irrigation ditches and rivers, often within yards of each house. Few know how to swim and the youngest are particularly vulnerable when mothers are too busy to supervise them closely.

In Bangladesh, a country much of which is under water, TASC is pioneering a huge programme of 'survival swimming', training local instructors to teach simple swimming strokes, treading water and safe rescue. For children aged one to four there's a parallel programme of village creches to keep them safe while their mothers do the chores.

(Image: Children use a pipe as a bridge in Bangladesh, Credit: AFP/Getty Images)

Available now

25 minutes

Last on

Tue 12 Feb 2013 20:05GMT


Congo: A River Journey in binaural audio

Put your headphones on for an immersive journey along the mighty Congo River in the DRC

In Detail: Moving Pictures

Take time to discover the detail in old masterpieces using your phone, tablet or computer


Stargazing - from eclipses to the spacecraft changing our view of the Universe

The Documentary Podcast

Every episode of The Documentary, on your mp3 player, to play wherever you are

The Compass

The essential take on big ideas, issues and trends from the 21st century