It’s Not Even Summer And Experts Are Worried About Australia’s Heatwaves

Heatwaves in Australia are getting hotter, longer, more frequent – and have led to increased ambulance calls, emergency visits, illnesses, and deaths.

It might only be Spring, but experts are already speaking out.

Researchers from Doctors for the Environment Australia are saying doctors need to educate at-risk patients, hospitals must be better prepared, and that Australia needs to develop a national heatwave plan.

Fears of an early start to warm weather have prompted doctors, led by a former Australian of the Year, to call for greater extreme heat preparedness to reduce illness and deaths, as well as the pressure on the health care system.

Professor Fiona Stanley speaking for medical group Doctors for the Environment Australia says that last week’s unusually early hot conditions in NSW are “a stark reminder that higher average temperatures are the new normal”.

“Predictions of more heatwaves are deeply concerning to health professionals who are at the front line of care,” says Professor Stanley, a child epidemiologist.

“Heat can cause debilitating sickness and death, which also places a heavy burden on our emergency departments, doctors’ surgeries and other health care providers.”

Professor Stanley in a co-authored paper, with emergency physician Dr Mark Monaghan and public health physician Dr Marion Carey, which is released today in the Medical Journal of Australia, said Australia’s larger cities have experienced occasions where health services have been severely stretched due to surges in illness and deaths during repeated heatwaves.

From 14 to 17 January 2014, Melbourne experienced temperatures over 41 degrees Celsius, with 167 premature deaths and a new record set for the highest number of calls for ambulance services ever received in a day.

An extreme heatwave in January and February 2009 in south-eastern Australia, which saw Melbourne experience three consecutive days above 43 degrees Celsius, resulted in an almost threefold increase in patients dead on arrival at emergency departments and 374 excess deaths.

Professor Stanley noted that not only were there more presentations to hospital emergency departments during a heatwave, the conditions suffered were also more severe.

Professor Stanley said that we need to develop a national climate change strategy that would coordinate plans on issues such as heatwaves. This could provide public health responses, communication, surveillance, additional resourcing, longer-term capacity building and evaluation.

Those who were most at risk of heat waves are older people, children, those with existing chronic illness such as cardiovascular and respiratory disorders, people with mental illness, those who are homeless and socially isolated, the poor and outdoor workers.

“Heat kills — and while we need to put in place proper adaptive responses to ensure better health outcomes for all Australians, ultimately the appropriate response is to address climate change. In particular, the burning of coal must be phased out,” Says Professor Stanley.

“The sooner we act, the more lives we will save and the more savings we can make to the health budget.”

This week’s Aussie heatwave is the latest in a long string of unusually hot weather. Here’s what other experts are saying about this new, hotter world we find ourselves living in and what you can do to protect yourself.

Associate Professor Ian Stewart, Faculty of Health Queensland University of Technology:

“Everyone generates extra heat internally which, under normal circumstances, dissipates into the cooler air outside the body, so that we maintain a core temperature of between 36c and 37c.

“But if the air outside is already 37c or higher, your body can no longer get rid of that excess heat – you’ve lost that natural mechanism for dispersing your internal heat. That’s why heatwaves are a so dangerous.

“Avoid hot meals altogether in a heatwave. Hot meals heat up your body as well as your house, neither of which you want to happen. Soft drinks or juice are generally unnecessary – a piece of fruit is a far better choice.”

Associate Professor Adrian Barnett, Principal Research Fellow in the Faculty of Health at Queensland University of Technology:

“Extreme heat is very bad for our health. Everyone’s cardiovascular system has to work harder when it’s hot, and for some people this extra strain can cause a myocardial infarction or stroke. People with pre-existing cardiovascular disease are at much greater risk, as are the elderly, especially those with dementia. People living in high density inner city areas are also at greater risk because for them the temperature is even hotter because of the urban heat island.

“Staying in air conditioning is the best way to reduce your risk, and people should also keep hydrated, avoid alcohol and check on their neighbours. Two things that can make a heat wave far worse are power blackouts and bushfires. Blackouts shut down air conditioners, which are the best way to reduce risk during a heat wave. Bushfires add air pollution to the mix which further challenges peoples’ cardiovascular systems. If lots of people become ill due to the heat then ambulances and hospitals can become extremely busy and the health system struggles to cope.”

Adjunct Professor Jim McLennan, Bushfire Safety Researcher at the Bushfire CRC:

“The threat to life from a period of very hot weather should not be underestimated. The official total death toll due to the 2009 Victorian Black Saturday bushfires was 173. However, it was estimated that during the heatwave in south-eastern Australia 17 January to 8 February 2009 some 374 people died from heat-related causes not associated with bushfires. The young and the elderly are particularly at-risk.”

Kelly Stewart, accredited sports dietician and Lecturer, Queensland University of Technology:

“Cold salads with lots of vegies and a protein-rich ingredient is a great choice in a heatwave. Try eating lots of cold fruits like watermelon or frozen grapes. Sandwiches with toppings that naturally contain a bit of salt will help you hang onto the water you drink.

“A little bit of cordial is okay but not too much – we don’t want to end the heatwave 5kg heavier. Active outside workers could benefit from a sports drink during the day to help them retain the fluid they’re consuming but I’d advise a sports drink for children or the elderly only if they are dehydrated.”

Dr Liz Hanna, Fellow of the National Centre for Epidemiology & Population Health at the Australian National University:

“In extreme conditions, the mere effort of moving generates heat that we need to shed in order to keep our body temperature within normal range. Shopping, cleaning, walking, exercising and of course working all increase our heat load.

“Heat effects increase in a cascade of health symptoms of increasing severity. Everyone should know the early signs of heat stress, so they can provide assistance. Signs include headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, irritability, thirst, and heavy sweating. The skin can be cold and clammy. Loss of salt from sweating can produce cramping. Anyone showing these symptoms should be taken to a cool place, rested and given cold drinks (no alcohol). Hot dry skin is a dangerous sign.”

Other key tips include:

  • avoid exposure – stay out of the sun and close blinds and curtains to shade rooms
  • avoid strenuous activity especially outdoors
  • keep drinking – by the time you feel thirsty your body is already dehydrating so drink often to avoid thirst
  • use air-conditioning or fans and wet the skin with moist towels to stay cool
  • wear loose, lightweight clothing and have a cool shower or tepid bath for babies and children
  • ensure outside pets have access to shade and plenty of water

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