The rate of children ages four and under who drown in Manitoba is greater than any other province, according to a new report from the Lifesaving Society’s provincial branch.

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The rate of children ages four and under who drown in Manitoba is greater than any other province, according to a new report from the Lifesaving Society’s provincial branch.

That unsettling distinction was one of several the society highlighted Tuesday, when it released its latest drowning report.

In addition to high rates among young children, its analysis showed while the rate at which Manitobans died by drowning dropped following a brief 2011 surge, the yearly average has consistently hovered around 25 for a decade.

The stagnation indicates much more needs to be done, according to the branch’s operations manager, Kevin Tordiffe.

"We need to spend more work on public educating," he said, "on advertising and making the public aware of the risks associated with being near or in water."

The society’s report formally analyzes data up to and including 2014. It relies on preliminary anecdotal data for media reports for 2015 and 2016. While drowning rates typically rise in the summer, August 2016 was a particularly deadly one, with at least four people drowning across Manitoba — two on the same day.

Early in the month, two children — 12-year-old David Medina and 11-year-old Jhonalyn Javier — drowned at Grand Beach. Later in the month, a 22-year-old University of Manitoba student drowned at Birds Hill Park, a relatively shallow artificial lake, and hours later, a 26-year-old Winnipeg man drowned in Caddy Lake (an incident police believe may have involved alcohol).

When it comes to young children, the Lifesaving Society urges constant parental supervision. If you’re around water with them, Tordiffe said, "you should be within arm's reach."

A helicopter takes off at Birds Hill Provincial Park after reports of a possible drowning last August.

ZACHARY PRONG / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

A helicopter takes off at Birds Hill Provincial Park after reports of a possible drowning last August.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t really change year to year, said Dr. Alecs Chochinov, medical director of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority’s emergency program.

"There are the tiny, tiny kids that slip into the bathtub and drown or kids that fall into the swimming pool, and that’s mostly a matter of ensuring that parents are on guard all the time and how do you change that?" he said.

"We can try to educate people, but we live in a society where there’s a high prevalence of social stress and those things are all contributory."

What is key, Tordiffe said, is learning how to swim. Focus less on stroke-specific swimming, he said, and more on the fundamentals.

The Lifesaving Society runs a Swim to Survive program based on decades of research into drowning.

While the program is prevalent in provinces such as Ontario, where many schools having some form of in-house swim program, Tordiffe said it isn’t in Manitoba -- where most pools are in Winnipeg and not connected with schools, making such a program potentially more costly.

At Swim to Survive, participants learn potentially life-saving skills.

The first is how to push their way to the surface after a disorienting entry (a roll). That can be crucial since 20 per cent of drowning victims weren’t actually swimming prior to their death; they were near the water doing something else: walking, running, or playing. The second skill is treading water with your head above the surface for one minute. The third is swimming 50 metres.

"It doesn’t matter how," Tordiffe stressed, it’s just about "being able to move forward in the water."

After young children, adults between the ages of 20 and 24 are at the next-highest risk for drowning in Manitoba.

For them, Tordiffe said, it boils down to risk-taking behaviour. They drink and swim or they drink and boat without a life jacket. Almost worse, he said, is they may boat with the life jacket to avoid a possible ticket but they don’t actually wear it.

"Having it with you isn’t going to save your life," Tordiffe said, "certainly not the way wearing it would."

Chochinov is skeptical education will help with that age range. Drinking mixed with no life jacket is already dangerous, but he said, mix that with being young and male and "that’s a bad triad."

The answer, Chochinov said, is probably better enforcement.

"There’s no real significant enforcement of the use of PDFs or alcohol use with driving boats," he said, adding something similar to drunk-driving stopchecks might help.

Ultimately, Tordiffe said, it's important all people, no matter their age, recognize what risks they’re taking.

"If you can see those risks in your mind, you’re going to be better prepared for them," he said. "That includes understanding when you’re out hiking with the family near water, supervision of your kids is paramount."

jane.gerster@freepress.mb.ca