Medical Observer: Docs need to take a stand on climate

Medical Observer: Docs need to take a stand on climate

 

I AM lucky enough to live and work in a beautiful area of bushland on Melbourne’s urban fringe.

Sulphur-crested cockatoos, kookaburras, and occasionally even a majestic king parrot can be seen and heard in my garden, or on a lunchtime walk from the surgery where I work.

For most of the year, the area is a delight. However for several months of the year it can be downright scary. When it is stinking hot, and the north wind is howling through the trees, I cannot help sometimes wishing I lived somewhere else.

I fled on Black Saturday and spent the night safely ensconced at the home of a relative in suburbia, while a fire burned less than 2km from my home. Fortunately, it was controlled quickly without loss of life.

All the people in my area are potentially in danger at times like these, but the most vulnerable in our community — the elderly, the poor and the marginalised are more so.

Bill,* 91, is one person who comes to mind. He has lived in the same house for over 60 years and he would not want to live anywhere else. A widower, Bill is able to remain in his home due to a network of support around him from various council services and his three children who live between 20 and 40 minutes away. However, it is undeniably a bit of a struggle. He is frail, and has various chronic medical conditions. He walks with a wheelie frame, and no longer drives.

Bill’s relatives would happily care for him in their homes in the event of a fire. But what of the time when a fire is just down the road? How will he get out safely? He cannot drive away.

Of course fires have always been a risk in Australia. However, with the advent of climate change, this risk looks to get steadily worse. The Black Saturday fires on 7 February, 2009, were unprecedented in ferocity and loss of life: 173 people died and 5000 were injured.1 The number of people psychologically traumatised is harder to quantify but was surely much higher. Current reports show we can expect more of the same as Australia continues to warm, and Victoria is particularly at risk.2

Temperature data indicates that 2014 is likely to surpass 2013 as the hottest year on record.3 In January 2014, Melbourne had four consecutive days over 40°C and Ambulance Victoria reported call-outs to heat related health events, including cardiac arrests, well in excess of usual levels.4

I can imagine people such as Bill being among the sufferers of these events. He requires diuretics for his cardiac failure; he often forgets to drink enough in hot weather; and his uninsulated old house is sweltering in summer as he cannot afford air conditioning.

There is abundant evidence that the world is currently on track for 4—5 degrees of warming due to anthropogenic climate change.5

This is clearly a public health issue. The current and projected health impacts of climate change are even worse for poor countries than for wealthy countries such as Australia.6

As health professionals, it behooves us all to call for urgent action to transition away from fossil fuels in order to try and mitigate this looming disaster. We must also call on authorities to improve preparedness for the effects which have now become inevitable.7

As doctors, our duty of care to patients like Bill demands nothing less.

www.dea.org.au

*Names have been changed.

1. http://www.abc.net.au/innovation/blacksaturday/about.html

2. Climate Council report Be Prepared: Climate Change and the Victoria Bushfire Threat

3. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-12-04/2014-on-track-to-be-hottest-year-on-record/5939566

4. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-01-23/heatwave-death-toll-expected-to-top-almost-400/5214496

5. http://www.ipcc.ch/

6. http://www.bu.edu/sph/files/2012/08/Haines_2006_Climate_Change_and_Human_Health_-_Impacts_Vulnerability_and_Public_Health.pdf

7. http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2014/11/04/comment-current-health-care-system-unprepared-effects-climate-change; http://dea.org.au/news/article/preparedness-is-key-to-extreme-weather-events

This article by DEA member Dr Sally McIlroy was first published in the Medical Observer 27 January 2015.

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