Drowning for love: the aquatic victim-instead-of-rescuer syndrome: drowning fatalities involving those attempting to rescue a child


  • Richard C Franklin,

    Corresponding author
    1. Royal Life Saving Society – Australia, Broadway, New South Wales
    2. Central Clinical Division, School of Medicine, University of Queensland
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  • John H Pearn

    1. Royal Life Saving Society – Australia, Broadway, New South Wales
    2. Department of Paediatrics and Child Health, Royal Children's Hospital, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
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Dr Richard C Franklin, Royal Life Saving Society Australia, PO Box 558, Broadway, NSW 2007, Australia. Fax: 02 8217 3199; email: rfranklin@rlssa.org.au


Introduction:  Non-intentional child drowning remains a leading cause of child mortality. A related and secondary syndrome is composed of those who drown in impulsive, altruistic attempts to go to the aid of a drowning child. Such ‘rescuers’ who attempt to save a drowning child may themselves drown, a tragic event we term the AVIR syndrome or aquatic victim-instead-of-rescuer.

Methods:  This study is composed of a five-year (1 July 2002 to 30 June 2007) total population Australian survey, using the National Coroners Information System to identify cases and an analysis of every immersion rescuer–victim dyad where the primary ‘victim’ was a child and where the ‘rescuer’ drowned.

Results:  In Australia (2002–2007), 17 rescuers drowned in 15 incidents in which the primary victim was a drowning child. In 93% of the incidents, the primary ‘child–victim’ survived, 82% of the victims were unfamiliar with the aquatic location (i.e. were a visitor) and 76% of the victims were a male parent, partner of first-degree relative. Alcohol was not generally involved.

Conclusion:  We define the AVIR syndrome as one that typically involves the following: a male, parent, partner or relative; an unfamiliar water hazard; a ‘rescuer’ who is a tourist; alcohol is not usually involved; and the primary victim usually survives. We posit that an increased awareness of such risks, the promotion of rudimentary rescue skills (e.g. being able to throw a lifeline) and increased advocacy for parents to learn the simple and basic life-saving skills of non-contact rescue will help reduce these drowning tragedies.