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New swim program aims to reduce drowning deaths in Bangladesh

Nanaimo doctor Steve Beerman has won $100,000 from Grand Challenges Canada’s Stars in Global Health to roll out a new survival swim initiative in Bangladesh. - CHRIS BUSH/The News Bulletin
Nanaimo doctor Steve Beerman has won $100,000 from Grand Challenges Canada’s Stars in Global Health to roll out a new survival swim initiative in Bangladesh.
— image credit: CHRIS BUSH/The News Bulletin

A Nanaimo doctor hopes to throw a lifeline to children in Bangladesh as an increasing number of youngsters fall victim to drowning.

Dr. Steve Beerman is among 83 global innovators to win a $100,000 grant from Grand Challenges Canada’s Stars in Global Health, to test solutions to world health problems. He believes he has found a “simple” solution in his survival swim program that can save the lives of 50 per cent of  children in a rural Bangladeshi village. If he’s right, he could be eligible to get a $1-million grant to ramp up the initiatives to millions of youngsters across the country.

In flood-prone Bangladesh close to 46 children drown daily and 17,0000 drowning deaths happen each year, making it the largest killer of children over a year old, according to UNICEF.

It is an “enormous” death rate, “probably the greatest in the world,” according to Beerman, who has been working with global collaborators for almost a decade on preventing drownings in third-world countries.

Children in Bangladesh don’t usually have swim skills despite spending nearly every day walking across rivers on telephone poles or across narrow foot paths beside flooded farm fields. There are no barriers and if they fall in, they are often left to fend for themselves because “there is no culture of saving and rescue,” said Beerman. “They believe God’s will is for the kid to drown and if you interfere with that then bad things will happen to you and your family.”

So Beerman is giving children the skills to save themselves.

As part of the new survival swim project, developed in partnership with care providers in Bangladesh, 1,000 rural children aged five to 14 years old will be taught basic survival swim skills in local ponds. Another 1,000 children, one to five years old, will be supervised by a daycare-like service away from open bodies of water six days a week.

The program will hire and train more than 90 Bangladeshis to keep the initiative sustainable. If Beerman can prove the program can reduce drowning among children, he could get up to $1 million from the Stars in Global Health program to ramp up the initiative to include more children.

“[Nearly 17,000] kids will drown per year in Bangladesh....if you can cut that in half that’s [8,500] children that can go on and have a life they wouldn’t otherwise have had,” said Beerman, also a site director for the University of British Columbia’s Family Practice training program at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital. “I am ...excited about the opportunity to have an impact and see if this will work.”

The Grant Challenges Canada Stars in Global Health program is aimed at giving countries foreign aid by supporting outside-the-box solutions to global health issues. Eighty-three global innovators were picked from more than 400 applications to receive $9.3 million in seed grants.

According to Ken Fimiyu, program officer for the initiative, the swim program stood out as a solution to a major third-world issue that’s often neglected by the general health sphere because it’s not seen as a public health problem.

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