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Adapted from

 Rescue and Resuscitation in the South African Surf Zone.

Efficacy of the South African Lifesaver and Current Challenges.

Glen Hagemann MbChB, DA(SA). Provincial Medical Adviser. Michael Hoffmann

MBBch, FCP (SA) Neurology. National Medical Adviser. South African Lifesaving,

Durban, South Africa.

The causes of drowning and requirements for resuscitation as experienced in the surf zone of South Africa are heterogenous. Clearly many different people from all walks of life and with widely differing surf knowledge and ability are prone to immersion and rescue by lifesavers. The competent free diver getting into trouble from over-breathing to the non-swimmer, alcohol abuser and infant are examples of the extremes of this spectrum.  


Although initially diagnosed as the direct cause of collapse in only one person, alcohol was noted on the breath of 34 / 99 victims (which includes children). If the figures are analysed for the age groups 21 years of age the percentage (of swimmers) consuming alcohol becomes 54%.  it may be a very common cause of people getting into trouble in the water.

 Impact of alcohol on human swimming abilities 

bulletUnderestimating their swimming capabilities. 
bulletIt may also precipitate cardiac arrhythmias, cardiac arrest and seizures.
bulletErrors in judgement.

Alcohol has been aptly named the ubiquitous catalyst in predisposing people to submersion and drowning and has been implicated as a major factor in the many secondary causes of drowning.

Interestingly the presence of alcohol on the breath did not influence the outcome of resuscitation. A comparison with a recent Australian study is appropriate here. Their incidence of alcohol on breath was 21% (compared to our local figure of 33%)  which also did not affect resuscitation outcome. Very similar findings were noted by the Canadian Lifesaving Society in their 1996 edition of the National Drowning Report wherein alcohol beverages were involved in 36% of all preventable water-related deaths in Canada.


Young age, alcohol consumption and bathing in non-demarcated areas are the primary prevention targets readily amenable to public health education.

Last updated on 04 January 2004


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