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22 October 2019

AITHM member and JCU Associate Professor in Public Health, Richard Franklin, is striving to help turn the tide on an epidemic that claims the lives of 12,000 Australians each year, and hospitalises almost half a million – accidental and intentional injuries.

­“We often think about cardiac diseases and cancers as significant health threats, but don't recognise the impact of injury; the pain and financial ramifications of sudden, unexpected death or disabling injuries,” said Professor Franklin, who is Director of the World Safety Organization Collaborating Centre for Injury Prevention and Safety Promotion at JCU.

“Work-related injury and disease alone cost the Australian economy $61.8 billion in 2012-13, according to Safe Work Australia. The economic burden of fatal drowning averages $1.24 billion per year.”

While many regard accidents – including road trauma, drownings, burns, falls and workplace mishaps – as bad luck, in reality most are preventable. The challenge is to identify those groups most at risk and develop targeted strategies to help keep them safe from harm. But the goal posts can change. Drowning – which claims around 250 Australian lives per year – is a prime example.

“One of the things we have done well is reduce the number of children drowning. But on the flip side, we are seeing a slow increase in the number of older people drowning; retirees who become sea or tree changers/decide to spend more time at favourite holiday locations,” said Professor Franklin.

“And while the vast majority of drownings are still male, we are seeing a change in the way females interact with water; more of them are drinking alcohol around water and taking on male-related, risk-taking behaviours.”

Professor Franklin is fostering the research efforts of a number of PhD and Masters students investigating drowning from a range of different angles, including studies on migrants and other at-risk populations, intentional drownings (suicide), drownings in rural areas, A&E treatment of drowning victims and also why female victims suffer worse health outcomes than males when they reach hospital.

He himself has been exploring the poignant subject of Aquatic Victim Instead of Rescuer (AVIR) syndrome. Between six and 10 Australians – most commonly male relatives – drown each year, while trying to rescue others.

“It is a particularly hard sort of behaviour to change, because usually it is very altruistic; people putting their own lives on the line for somebody else. We are investigating why some people die during rescue attempts and others don’t. How can we better equip people to undertake safe rescues,” he said.

For Professor Franklin, who describes himself as a pracademic, it is imperative to translate research findings into practical measures to improve safety; from public education campaigns through to policy changes, including concerted efforts to provide safer swimming environments.

His PhD student, Amy Peden’s ground-breaking research project on river drownings (the most common location for drowning fatalities in Australia) is already making waves. Her findings, which highlight the role of alcohol in many drownings, have sparked two new Royal Life Saving Society campaigns: “Respect the River” and “Don’t let your mates drink and drown”.

Such partnerships are crucial. Professor Franklin is working closely with farming groups, including the Farmsafe Australia network, to tackle quad bike accidents, a growing killer in the agricultural sector, which employs three percent of the workforce, but suffers 30 percent of workplace fatalities. Quad bike deaths have skyrocketed from three in the period 1989-2001, to 128 between 2001-2018.

“We are working hard to get people to wear a helmet, be trained, and pick the right vehicle for the job. Adding a crush protection device is also useful, but will not stop the initial incident. Keeping children off adult bikes is essential,” he said. 

In November, 2020, Professor Franklin will chair the 14th World Conference on Injury Prevention and Safety Promotion, in Adelaide. Co-sponsored by the World Health Organisation, the conference will bring together some 1500 world experts working to reduce the annual, five million global death toll from injuries.

“Funding for this field of work is limited. It can be quite lonely and challenging. We bring these people together to try and cross-pollinate research activities, improve the evidence base and support new and emerging researchers,” he said.

For Professor Franklin, who recently contributed his expertise to drowning prevention programs in the Philippines, the challenges are worth the results. ­­­

 “One of the great things is when you start to see the fatality numbers coming down; that there are people alive today, because of the work that you've done, as part of a wider group,” he said.

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