This article by DEA Committee Member Marion Carey was published in the Medical Observer 22 February and appears with the permission and courtesy of Medical Observer.
The medical impacts of extreme weather events is a growing issue in suffering and cost. This is one of several DEA initiatives on this matter which includes a submission to the Senate Committee, an appearance before the Senate Committee and an article “Flood and fire; the case for a levy on coal exports” in Renew Economy, 10 February 2013.
While our land has long been one of drought and flooding rains, we have recently seen unprecedented heat, bushfire and flood - and this trend is set to continue. As Prof David Karoly has said, climate scientists are seeing now exactly what was predicted more than 20 years ago (an inconvenient truth for those denying climate change).
2013 started with a record-breaking heat wave that lasted more than two weeks across many parts of the country with temperatures regularly above 48°C. The Australian mean temperature set record highs on January 7 and 8. The Bureau of Meteorology added new colours to its weather map for temperatures once off the scale (50-52°C and 52-54°C).
A relatively small change in the average temperature can significantly increase the frequency of extreme heat events. Australia has warmed steadily since the 1940s, and the probability of extreme heat has now increased almost five-fold compared with 50 years ago.
Associated with the heatwave were bushfires across NSW, Victoria and Tasmania. With Hobart reaching its highest temperature on record (41.8 ̊ C), Tasmanian fires destroyed property and bushland, forcing communities flee to the coast and thousands to seek rescue or shelter.
In 2009 we had an insight into the health and social impacts of heatwave and fires. The Victorian 2009 heatwave 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 2000 homes. Victims of the bushfires are still struggling with the long-term mental health consequences.
Further in January 2013, regions of Queensland and NSW experienced severe storms and flooding. Thousands of Bundaberg residents were evacuated, including patients at the Bundaberg Hospital. Housing, transport, sewage systems were damaged and power and water supplies affected.
Extreme weather events are expected to have an increasing impact on the health and well-being of populations: deaths and illness, mental health problems, exacerbation of chronic disease, social dislocation and increased risk of homelessness, and increasing pressure on health and welfare services. Impacts are likely to be disproportionately felt by the most vulnerable in society. There is currently insufficient knowledge as to how acute care and community health and welfare sectors can meet this emerging challenge.
We can longer brush aside disasters as “one in a hundred year event”, so how do we prepare for this less stable future? Submissions to a current federal inquiry into Australia’s preparedness for extreme weather events make interesting reading. The AMA notes the lack of understanding of the health implications of extreme weather, lack of long-term planning, and failure to sufficiently engage health professionals. DEA emphasises the need to assess how essential health services will cope, to strengthen the primary health care sector and to urgently limit future damage by effective action on climate change.
How prepared is your community and health service for extreme weather?
ABC News. Jan 12, 2013 Heatwave exacerbated by climate change: Climate Commission http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-01-12/climate-commission-predicts-more-heatwaves-bushfires/4461960