Warming climate threatens health, doctors warn

This month we saw one of the most significant multi-day heatwaves on record in Australia. The heatwave affected large parts of South-eastern Australia with maximum temperatures for the period 13-17 January 12°C or more above normal in most of Victoria, most areas of South Australia within 200 kilometres of the coast, and parts of central Tasmania. 

Victoria had its hottest four-day period on record. In Adelaide, the temperature reached 45.1°C on the 14th, the fourth-highest temperature on record for the city. Thousands of bats died in SE Qld. Dozens of fires raged in SA and Victoria, there were blackouts from the stress on the power grid, and Melbourne’s trains had to go slow to avoid buckling the lines.

In Victoria, more than 203 deaths were reported to the coroner, more than twice the average. Across the state, paramedics treated more than 500 people for heat exhaustion and received 208 calls about cardiac arrests.

In South Australia the ambulance service saw an increase of 400 emergency and urgent incidents, compared to the same period last year, an average of 100 more incidents per day and a 17 per cent workload increase.


Sadly this sort of scenario is what will increasingly be the norm, with doctors and emergency services in the front line. The Victorian heatwave in 2009 was associated with an estimated 374 excess deaths, a 25% increase in metropolitan ambulance emergency cases and 12% increase in emergency department presentations. The ensuing bushfires resulted in 173 deaths with 414 patients initially presenting to emergency departments, and destruction of over 2,000 homes.

The Climate Council warned that extreme weather patterns can be attributed to climate change, with the continued burning of fossil fuels trapping more heat in the lower atmosphere. One  recent study predicts that extreme heatwaves will by 2020 affect about double the global land area affected today; 4 times the area by 2040. Under a low emission scenario, the number of extremes would stabilise by 2040, whereas under a high emission scenario, the land area affected by extremes would increase such that extreme heat waves would affect 85% of the global land area by the end of the century. www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2013/08/15/3826303.htm

Research from the University of Melbourne has indicated that it is impossible to reach such temperature records for 2013 from natural climate variation alone http://theconversation.com/australias-hottest-year-was-no-freak-event-humans-caused-it-21734

Despite the evidence of our eyes and the news that we still have a chance to mitigate the most dangerous path of planetary warning, we haven’t heard a chorus of calls demanding more urgent and effective action on climate change. Yet DEA is in there trying. We issued a media release in which we warned about the threat to health and the strain on our health services. 

Victorian Chair, Dr Eugenie Kayak made the point: “Climate change is impacting our health now. An increasingly hot climate with more severe extreme weather events is the reality we face unless we take decisive action to reduce our fossil fuel emissions both domestically and through exports. This week is a timely reminder that human health is fundamentally dependent on a stable climate and healthy environment and both should be public health priorities.”  Eugenie was interviewed for ABC TV news and we continue to look for opportunities to spread the message. DEA continues to play a vital role in promoting the connection between climate change, extreme weather and our health and every DEA member is an important part of this work.

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