There's a reason we've named Michael Bloomberg the "most effective philanthropist" for the past three years straight. The billionaire former mayor of New York City and top mega-giver knows how to get lots of bang for the buck with his global health giving, which focuses on saving lives in poorer countries using tested solutions that have worked in wealthy countries.
We've written often about the massive investments that Bloomberg Philanthropies has made to reduce deaths from smoking and traffic accidents—investments that together are now approaching $1 billion. These are hardly the sexiest issues in global health; you won't find celebrities talking about them, for example. But smoking and traffic accidents kill millions every year—and many of these deaths are preventable with common sense strategies that have long been used here in the United States.
In this same vein, Bloomberg Philanthropies is also ramping up work to reduce drowning deaths—another seemingly mundane health issue, but one that claims a huge toll. It’s estimated that 360,000 people each year die globally by drowning, with 90 percent of those deaths occurring in low- and middle-income countries. Of those deaths, over 60,000 are children under the age of five. There's no statistic that can capture the grief of parents who lose a child, but here's the thing: Deaths by drowning have fallen steadily since the 1970s in the United States, especially for children, thanks to various steps at prevention and education. Why can't the same trend take hold in poorer countries?
In 2012, Bloomberg Philanthropies piloted its Drowning Prevention Program in Bangladesh, where drowning is the leading cause of death among children ages one to four. Seeking to address this fact directly, as well as the fact that most children drown in small bodies of water within 60 feet of their homes, Bloomberg funded a two-year study conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to assess “potentially effective drowning prevention interventions.”
In 2014, Bloomberg cut a $10 million check to the program, which continued to focus its efforts in Bangladesh. That year, Bloomberg would also partner with Johns Hopkins and the World Health Organization (WHO) to identify scalable and effective solutions to prevent drowning deaths and foster stronger relationships between public health officials and drowning prevention advocates. As well, the philanthropies supported the WHO's global report on drowning prevention.
This year, the program is expanding quite a bit with a $25 million commitment from Bloomberg Philanthropies. In this latest effort, Bloomberg is working with key implementation and monitoring partners including the WHO, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Synergos.
The funding will expand the use of daycare as a preventive drowning measure and support survival swimming projects in Vietnam. Support will continue for projects and interventions in Bangladesh, as well. The expansion of the program also includes the planned implementation of national drowning surveys in two yet-to-be-named countries in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the press release, the WHO “estimates that this region has the highest rates of drowning deaths, but there is very little country-specific data.”
Bloomberg calls the lack of available information on drowning deaths “shocking.” As we've reported before, part of Bloomberg's global health work entails an ambitious drive to gather better data on the causes of mortality and other health matters worldwide. Clearly, drownings are yet one more area where work is needed.