Australia’s health sector underprepared for escalating extreme heat

More needs to be done to prepare Australia’s health and community sectors to cope with the pressures from more frequent and severe heatwaves, a new Climate Council report has found.

The Silent Killer: Climate Change and the Health Impacts of Extreme Heat found that although many states have taken significant steps to upgrade their heat and health warning systems since the deadly heatwaves of 2009, strategies vary considerably from state to state and focus primarily on reactive rather than long-term planning.

The report comes as health professionals from all over Australia prepare to gather next week for the Climate Council’s Heat and Health summit.

They will discuss how to prepare Australia’s health sector in the long-term for longer, hotter and more intense heatwaves.

Summit co-chair Dr Liz Hanna said a comprehensive and streamlined response to the increasing dangers of extreme heat would save lives.

“Early warning systems have been shown to reduce the death toll of heatwaves but they also require effective responses to cope with the surge in demand for services,” she said.

“Australia has taken very significant steps in the last five years to increase these systems but they vary greatly in quality and scope. We need to look at ways to build long-term heat resilience in our communities, including urban design and cross-sectoral approaches.

“Adopting national standards or requirements for heatwave response plans could be an option to address these challenges.”

The report also found:

  • The number of record hot days in Australia has doubled in the last 50 years and heatwaves have become longer, hotter and more intense.
  • Heatwaves have killed more Australians than any other natural hazard and have caused more deaths since 1890 than bushfires, cyclones, earthquakes, floods and severe storms combined.
  • Heatwaves have been shown to dramatically affect patient presentations. During the heatwave in south-east Australia in early 2009, emergency call-outs in Victoria jumped by 46%, cases involving heat-related illness jumped 34-fold and cardiac arrests almost tripled. In total it was estimated that more than 370 excess deaths occurred during this period, a 62% increase in mortality on the previous year.
  • Infrastructure is failing to keep up with the changing climate. While hospitals are generally well-safeguarded, other health service providers such as nursing homes and medical centres may not have access to backup energy or water supplies.

Summit co-chair Professor Lesley Hughes said governments needed to address both the symptoms and the cause of extreme heat.

“Research has shown that heatwaves could cause hundreds of additional deaths annually in Australia by 2050 without significant action to tackle climate change,” she said.

“Reducing greenhouse gas emissions rapidly and deeply is the only way to protect Australians from worsening extreme heat events.”

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