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Heatwaves the nation’s deadliest natural disaster

04 Mar 2014

Hundreds of people are being condemned to “private, silent deaths” as scorching heatwaves build in intensity and regularity, according to a report on changing weather patterns.

In an alarming report, the Climate Council warned that during severe heatwaves of the kind that baked much of the country in January and early February, there is a surge in the number of people dying or requiring medical treatment.
The Climate Council’s report Heatwaves: hotter, longer and more often, said that although claims of 203 heat-related deaths and a 20-fold increase in ambulance call-outs in Victoria in January had not yet been verified, experience from previous heatwaves showed they were a dangerous time, particularly for the very old and the very young.

It said that during the heatwave that struck Melbourne in late January 2009, there were 374 deaths reported in excess of seasonal average, while a separate study of Adelaide health data between 1993 and 2006 found hospital admissions spiked 7 per cent higher during heatwaves, while the proportion of people needing ambulance transport jumped 4 per cent.

While most people could survive one extremely hot day, the report said, “heatwaves lasting even a few days, especially if coupled with high overnight temperatures, can cause serious health impacts”.

“It is the cumulative effects over a few days of an intense heatwave that lead to serious health impacts and deaths – and we tend to see these after the worst of the heatwave has passed,” it said, citing as evidence figures showing that in January 2009, Melbourne’s death rate peaked in the last two days of the month, by which time temperatures were easing lower.

Citing a recent Price-WaterhouseCooper report, the Council said heatwaves kill more people than any other natural disaster, and people who died because of them suffered “private, silent deaths which only hit the media when morgues reach capacity or infrastructure fails”.

The Climate Council warned that heatwaves are likely to become more intense and frequent, with flow-on implications for health.

“Over the period 1971 to 2008, both the duration and frequency of heatwaves has increased,” the report said, with the number of recorded hot days doubling since 1950 and hot weather records being broken at three times the rate of cold weather records.

The report’s findings echo concerns raised by the AMA about the health effects of climate change and the need for national and international action to address the threat.
“The AMA believes that climate change is a significant worldwide threat to human health that requires immediate action, and we recognise that human activity has contributed to climate change,” Dr Hambleton said recently.

“The AMA wants to see a national strategic approach to climate change and health, and we want health professionals to play an active and leading role in educating the public about the impacts and health issues associated with climate change.”

The Climate and Health Alliance, a coalition of representative health groups, said the Climate Council’s report reaffirmed the serious threat posed by heatwaves.
“Heatwaves are now more frequent and more intense, and we are witnessing a dramatic increase in the number of near deaths and deaths from heatwaves over the last decade,” Alliance President Dr Liz Hanna said.

“Deaths and medical emergencies from heatwaves are an alarming portent of what is to come,” she said. “Failing to commit to credible emissions reductions in Australia is putting the health of Australians at risk. Acting on climate change is a vital and urgent public health initiative. Failure to act is killing people.”

Adrian Rollins

Published: 04 Mar 2014