Why we need to plan for the health impacts of drought

Ayman Shenouda

24/08/2018 1:57:32 PM

Chair of RACGP Rural Dr Ayman Shenouda discusses steps GPs can take to plan for long-term health issues likely to arise from the drought gripping parts of Australia.

Empty dams are a common sight is drought-affected areas of NSW and Queensland. (Image: David Mariuz)
Empty dams are a common sight is drought-affected areas of NSW and Queensland. (Image: David Mariuz)

We are seeing a major drought, particularly in the worst-affected parts of NSW, where the current dry conditions have spread to most inland parts of the state.
While the recent media focus is a good thing to keep some philanthropic and government dollars flowing, we really need a better preventive strategy to protect our farmers and our food resources from these extremes.
What we are seeing is reactive policy, which demonstrates the ineffectiveness of our national drought management policies.
It is clear that the severity of the drought and the vulnerability of particular populations requires a more targeted and planned response.
We need to allocate a greater proportion of total health resources to drought impact mitigation and prevention.
While short-term drought-related health shocks can be more obvious, it is the longer-term, more indirect health implications that are harder to measure and monitor.
In helping our communities prepare for drought, GPs should have a leading role in drought-related public health vulnerability assessments. This involves working with the community and key partners to ensure coordinated preparedness and response efforts. Staying engaged through non-drought periods is essential.
Here are some key steps we can consider in undertaking drought planning and vulnerability assessments in our own communities.
Step 1: Identify vulnerable populations
While the health effects of drought can be severe, the health disparities across diverse rural communities can make public health planning a challenge. This is why GPs need to have an active role in identifying priority groups within our community.
Most rural practices sustain themselves by being attentive to changes within their communities and knowing how to work with constrained resources.
Step 2: Make disease projections
We need more data around this but, generally, populations face an increased risk of illness in the year (or years) they are exposed to drought.
A formal role for GPs in addressing the data gaps and building more evidence around the causal links between health and the environment is needed to inform future national policy.
Step 3: Plan for specific health effects
Droughts have many consequences for health. Social impacts are obvious, as drought contributes to debt burden and the consequent psychological impacts run deep.
Generally speaking, we will see more air-borne and water-borne diseases and infections, with effects on air quality, including related respiratory illness. There will also be a worsening of chronic illnesses and mental health conditions through social impacts and compromised food and nutrition.
The more immediate impacts of heat include increased risk of dehydration and heat stress.
A community capacity-building program for drought response should be prioritised to assess drought impacts and explore actions in response from a health perspective.
Step 4: Establish intervention strategies
Inadequate social impact indicators make this task harder, but we need to think about building resilience to drought. In building resilience, it is important to implement critical programs to protect the most vulnerable health populations in specific locations.
Building the evidence base for population-level interventions will also help close the gap between research and practice. A national program to support communities to undertake drought-related public health vulnerability assessments is a good way to make this happen.

drought drought relief Rural health

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