WA is a hot State, which is getting hotter with the process of climate change, and each one of us needs to understand the dangers of letting our body overheat, warns the WA Department of Health.
Planning ahead and protection are essential for the expected increase in heatwaves, officially known as “extreme heat events”, the department says, particularly now that we may be less acclimatised to the heat, a side-effect of spending longer periods in air- conditioned offices, cars and houses.
Growing obesity, too, is making heat harder to deal with.
When overwhelmed by intense summer heat, the body’s temperature- regulating centre can get to a point where it fails to cope with heat generated by both the body and the environment, and the resulting heat stress causes headaches, nausea and a reduced level of consciousness. In the extreme, it can be life-threatening.
But when the mercury soars, and a heatwave causes the population to swelter, the Department of Health’s greater concern is the possible spike in hospitalisation and deaths among those battling chronic medical conditions such as heart, respiratory and kidney disease. For them, being hot, exhausted and unable to sleep can become “the last straw”, exacerbating underlying disease.
Royal Perth Hospital has confirmed it sees heart attack and stroke cases associated with hot weather.
Offering no time to recover, a run of hot nights in particular has been linked with increased illness and death, according to the Department of Health’s deputy chief health officer, Andy Robertson.
He confirmed there were now strong indications that night temperatures may even be more important in affecting health than maximum daytime temperatures.
Ongoing preparation by the State for the expected increase in “extreme heat events” included a heatwave being officially declared this year as a hazard under the Emergency Management Act, said Dr Robertson.
The department and other government agencies were now working on a management plan that also covered an unexpected loss of the power supply or power shortages. In 2010, a Statewide health policy on the response of hospitals during a heatwave had been drawn up.
“As a State, we are continuing to get hotter and drier, and the predictions out to 2030 are talking about an average warming of over a degree,” Dr Robertson said.
“It may not sound like a lot, but if you are already at 42C then another degree gets fairly warm. And with that, you also get an increased number of hot days and increased number of warm nights.”
In preparation, the department has also been studying and learning from the affect of extreme heat both interstate and overseas, reporting that the heatwave in Victoria in January 2009, when maximum temperatures were 12-15 degrees above normal, resulted in a 25 per cent increase in total emergency cases attended by ambulance services and 374 excess deaths.
In northern France in 2003, unprecedented high day and night-time temperatures for a period of three weeks resulted in 15,000 deaths in excess of those who would have died in the next few weeks or months because of illness or old age.
There was strong evidence that these summer deaths were extra deaths and were the result of heat-related conditions, including indirect effects from the exacerbation of underlying cardiovascular, respiratory or renal disease and increases in homicides and suicides.