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Australia's Health Services Must Start Preparing For 50 Degree Days

Heatwaves have been responsible for more human deaths than any other natural hazard, including bushfires, storms and floods.

05/10/2017 9:56 AM AEDT | Updated 05/10/2017 9:56 AM AEDT

Doctors have urged the Australian Government to start preparing the nation's health services for heat-related illnesses as cities such as Sydney and Melbourne are warned they could soon experience 50 degree days.

Heatwaves -- referred to as a 'silent killer' -- are believed to be responsible for more Australian deaths than any other natural hazard, including bushfires, storms, tropical cyclones and floods, according to the New South Wales Government.

In the wake of the Australian National University (ANU) study which said that climate change could dramatically affect the livability of Australian cities, Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) has urged the Federal Government to prepare emergency departments to cope with extra admissions from heatwaves.

With extreme heat events poised to become more regular, DEA's spokesperson Dr David Shearman has said that a national plan must be implemented which "incorporates appropriate investment in our hospitals and ambulance services to cope with the inevitable increased demand".

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Sydney and Melbourne have been warned that 50 degree days could soon become a reality.

In addition to this, such a plan should focus on community education, early warning systems and the "monitoring of at risk groups in the event of an anticipated heatwave and city planning to mitigate heat risks."

"We must not underestimate the damage that heatwaves can have ... People will die every time a major heatwave occurs. It is for good reason that they are often described as a 'silent killer'," he said.

"Yet despite the number of record hot days in Australia doubling in the past 50 years, and predictions of heatwaves becoming hotter, longer and more frequent, there is no coordinating national policy."

To date, Heatwaves in Australia have been responsible for:

  • Up to 25 percent of ambulance emergency call-outs
  • Up to 60 percent increase in emergency department resuscitation cases
  • An overall increase in presentations to emergency departments
  • Increase in direct heat-related presentations and an increase in overall deaths ranging from 13-24 percent
  • Power outages that interrupt the supply chain for medicines and vaccines, many of which require refrigeration

Victoria's 2009 heatwave -- which saw Melbourne swelter under three consecutive days above 43 degrees -- is believed to have contributed to the deaths of around 374 people, 248 of those aged 75-years-old or over, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

A 2013 Government report predicted that heatwave-related deaths in Australia's major cities would quadruple by 2050.

"Our major cities have experienced heatwaves events where health services have been severely stretched," Shearman said.

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People dive into the sea from the pier at St Kilda beach on January 30, 2009 in Melbourne during a heatwave.

"We must ensure we are well prepared for future heatwaves with more staff, more hospital beds, more available ambulances, to meet the effects of the anticipated deadly heat shocks that include dehydration, heat stress and heat stroke."

The Climate Council, has previously noted the effects of climate change in driving longer, hotter and more intense heatwaves in Australia, with the number of record hot days doubling since 1960.

According to Dr Sophie Lewis, from the ANU's Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, urgent international action on climate change is critical -- and could prevent record extreme seasons year after year.

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