Millions to swelter as doctors warn of ‘public health emergency’

Matt Woodley

16/12/2019 3:37:33 PM

Heat records are predicted to tumble across Australia, including in NSW, where medical groups have called for a response to ongoing air pollution from bushfire smoke.

Burning sun on the horizon
Australia is on track to break the record for its hottest day on record, prompting a series of heat-related health warnings. (Image: AAP)

The Bureau of Meteorology is forecasting a torrid week, with temperatures in the high 30s or low 40s expected for most major cities, a situation that could see Australia break the record for its hottest day on record.
The heatwave started in Perth, which endured three consecutive days above 40⁰C – the first time this has happened in December since records began – before a ‘cool change’ saw the mercury only reach 37⁰C.
Adelaide will be next, with four days of temperatures in excess of 40⁰C forecast in coming days, while Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney will all experience days approaching, or topping, 40⁰C this week.
Dr Jessica Kneebone, Chair of the RACGP Specific Interests Environmental Impacts in General Practice network, told newsGP the full health impacts of heatwaves can sometimes be difficult to measure. She did point out, however, that more people died from heat-related events during Melbourne’s 2009 extreme weather event than were the associated Black Saturday bushfires.
‘Heat stroke and exhaustion are some of the most directly heat-related illnesses, but heat stress can also cause or exacerbate cardiovascular and kidney problems,’ she said.
‘I would stress that heat-related illness is expected to rise as our climate continues to warm – hot days are expected to become more common, and severe and heatwaves will become the norm. Heatwave events may well become an average summer day.’
Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia have already released public health warnings or heat plans, and Dr Kneebone believes it is important to be aware of patients most likely to be affected.
‘Children and older adults are more at risk, as are people with some chronic medical conditions and those taking certain medications, like water pills and anti-psychotic medications,’ she said.
‘The heat is also particularly hard on people who work outside or spend most of their time outdoors … [while] living in urban areas can also increase one’s chances of heat exposure because of the urban heat island effect.
‘Paved surfaces and the built environment retain heat and, according to the [Environmental Protection Agency], can make air temperatures in cities as much as five degrees warmer than nearby rural areas.’
Dr Kneebone also warned that GPs need to be aware that rising temperatures are linked to a decline in mental health.
‘Hospital admissions for mental and behavioural disorders in both rural and urban areas rise once ambient temperatures go above about 27°C,’ she said. ‘In metropolitan South Australia, admissions for mental, behavioural and cognitive disorders have been found to increase by around 7% during heatwaves.
‘Mental suffering from extreme heat [can include] more aggressive and antisocial behaviour; a higher risk of suicide, especially amongst men; and impaired concentration, mood and mental wellbeing.’

The smoke haze blanketing Sydney has gotten so bad that it has produced air pollution of up to 11 times higher than the base ‘hazardous’ level in parts of the city. (Image: AAP)

The prolonged hot weather is also likely to make life difficult for firefighters tackling out-of-control bushfires in New South Wales and Western Australia, where homes have been lost and hundreds of thousands of hectares burned.
The smoke haze blanketing Sydney has gotten so bad that it has produced air pollution of up to 11 times higher than the base ‘hazardous’ level in parts of the city, prompting a group of more than 20 medical bodies and associations to declare a ‘public health emergency’ in the state.
The joint statement calls on Prime Minister Scott Morrison and State Premier Gladys Berejiklian to ‘show leadership’ and implement measures to help alleviate ‘the health and climate crisis’.
‘Governments have a responsibility to protect the people they represent,’ the release states.
‘Climate change is worsening many extreme weather events such as serious bushfire weather, which is having devastating impacts on human health … our governments must act quickly to rapidly and deeply reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which we know are driving climate change.
‘This must include a multi-portfolio response involving federal and state governments and the development of a National Strategy on Climate, Health and Wellbeing.
‘This will ensure a nationally coordinated approach to tackling the worsening health impacts of climate change, and that health service planning includes climate change preparedness to respond to the increasing demand for health services from extreme weather events, such as bushfires and heatwaves.’
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Dr Eric John Drinkwater   17/12/2019 11:44:28 AM

Good research in the recent past in Victoria indicates an excess death rate when overnight temperatures do not fall below 30 degrees C.

(hoping the link will work)

Dr Kim Mei Loon Loo   17/12/2019 11:56:01 AM

Thank you for this article . As it is important for doctors to be advocates for their community in the advocacy space.
There are numerous medications that also reduce their ability to thermo regulate . If this article has not been done . Would be useful .

Dr Daniel Peter Ewald   17/12/2019 3:19:07 PM

The RACGP seems to be missing in signing on with other colleges declaring climate emergency. The AMA has made a separate statement supporting climate emergency.
Come on RACGP where are you?

Dr Virginia Lee Reid   17/12/2019 4:30:22 PM

I agree with all comments but would especially like to see our college join with the other signatories to the statement which includes the RACP, ACEmergencyM and nurses of same as well as the Public Health association. Why aren't we proactively joining in with the other doctors to call on this government both federal and state to take notice of the science on both how our climate is changing and the effect this will have on health?? Not sure about other GPs but I have certainly noticed the impact of the last few weeks of smoke on the incidence and effect of respiratory illness for example. It seems irresponsible of us not to take this opportunity to advocate for our patients .What is the problem please?

A.Prof Christopher David Hogan   17/12/2019 7:26:15 PM

This is a major issue & the excess all-cause mortality rate during heatwaves is of extreme concern.

Dr Peter James Strickland   18/12/2019 12:40:40 PM

Let us all take a big breath and get this right by looking at the truth. Climate CHANGE is a continuous process; what we are experiencing is climate VARIATION, and a proportion of that relates to our big star called the Sun. Look at the truth about heat, fires, floods and droughts etc in Australia since the 1800s and one will see the pattern repeats. In 70 years the population of Australia has gone up three times --- that means Homo sapiens breathing out CO2 has trebled, we have cleared land for food and housing, and that alone can change CO2 levels. Heatwaves are caused by our energy source called the Sun which produces fusion energy and determines ALL our weather continuously. The polluters on Earth are NOT Australians --- almost all chimneys in the coal power stations in Victoria put out STEAM, and not excess pollution. Those who bother to question the media hype we see on the ABC etc. are ridiculed, but are the unblinded scientific ethical thinkers.

Dr Belinda Therese Ford   18/12/2019 9:46:29 PM

Dear Peter and climate sceptics,
I was a little confused by your comments Peter. Do you refute that climate change exists or is it just that you disagree that burning coal is the main source of C02 emissions?
The public looks to us as credible sources of scientific and medical information so it is important that we do not spread misinformation. With respect, may I direct you to for irrefutable evidence that climate change exists or you could attend a talk by The Climate Reality Project? 97% of climate scientists agree that rising world temperatures are attributable to C02 levels that have spiked since the industrial revolution. There is less than a 1 in a million chance that the current trend in world temperatures is due to a random event. Several prominent "climate sceptic" scientists have changed their views after failed attempts to prove the null hypothesis (that climate change does not exist). It is entirely forgivable to admit you may be misguided here.

Dr Anne Marjorie Stanton Glew   4/01/2020 11:01:06 AM

what we are seeing is not a result of climate change. WE are seeing the result of years of disastrous lack of planning: back burning , forest clearance, insistence on country properties being surrounded by low bush , continuous clearing of foliage by the sides of roads, all sensib le activities in a country with low rainfall , none of which have occurred.