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Elderly most at risk of climate change: report

The public focus needs to move on to the risks to human health rather than just the environment, say researchers. Darragh O Keeffe reports.

Climate change will lead to greater injuries, disease and deaths in the decades to come, according to a report which says health professionals such as nurses have a responsibility to show leadership and educate the public.

The report by the Climate Commission, an independent body of climate scientists and policy makers, says the most vulnerable members of the community – including children, the elderly and those in remote areas – are most at risk.

The Critical Decade: Climate Change and Health found few Australians are aware of the risks climate change poses to their health as the public and policy discussion has tended to focus on environmental impacts.

Yet the risks to human health from climate change include injuries and fatalities arising from heatwaves and other severe weather events; spread of infectious diseases; water and food contamination, exacerbated respiratory and heart diseases and mental health problems.

Climate change is forecast to lead to thousands of premature deaths from heat by 2050, the report said.

Heat is a silent killer and is the leading cause of weather-related deaths in Australia. As Australia has become hotter there has been an increase in the annual number of extremely hot days and the frequency of severe heatwaves. The number of hot days has doubled in the last fifty years, leading to more heat-related deaths and disease, the report said.

Recent heatwaves around Australia caused increased hospital admissions for kidney disease, acute renal failure and heart attacks. During the severe heatwaves in south-eastern Australia in 2009, Melbourne experienced three consecutive days at or above 43°C in late January. There were 980 deaths during this period—374 more than the estimated 606 that would have occurred on average for that time of year. Most of the increase was among people aged 75 or older, the report noted.

Elsewhere, the report said there was evidence that climate change had already led to a change in the frequency, duration and intensity of extreme weather events such as temperature extremes, storms and floods.

The December 2010 and January 2011 flooding in Queensland and tropical cyclones Anthony and Yasi demonstrated the catastrophic effects that extreme weather events can have on life, health and infrastructure. More than 78 per cent of Queensland was declared a disaster zone and 35 people were killed by the floods; in total, about 2.5 million people were affected, the research noted.

Extreme weather events also have long-term impacts on the spread of infectious disease, the mental health of communities suffering in the aftermath, and on people needing to access compromised health services and infrastructure.

The expected rise in infectious diseases, meanwhile, which was associated with increasing temperatures, changes in rainfall, and more intense extreme weather events, was also of serious concern, it said.

Dengue fever is currently confined to northern Queensland but as north-eastern Australia becomes hotter and wetter the range of the mosquito that spreads dengue fever is projected to move south. A southward spread could put five to eight million Australians at risk by the end of the century – 10 to 16 times the population that is currently at risk.

Further, as average temperature continues to rise across Australia the incidence of bacterial food-borne diseases will also rise.

The paper found that, along with children and those living in remote areas, the elderly are amongst the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The factors that increased this vulnerability included physical and social isolation; diminished physical and mental abilities; less able to care for themselves during adverse weather; prescription medication use can mask early symptoms of heat stress; and less able to take appropriate action in response to public health warnings.

The researchers said that prominent individuals and organisations within the health profession had highlighted climate change was a serious threat to human health. Despite that, many health professionals and much of the community were yet to fully appreciate the health implications of a changing climate.

“Communities with a deeper understanding… are better equipped to participate in decisions about addressing climate change and preparing themselves for changes that cannot now be avoided,” the report said.

Health professionals and health organisations have many opportunities to help the public and decision makers better understand the health implications of climate change.

“Leadership by trusted health professionals, like doctors and nurses, and institutions, like hospitals and GP clinics, can have a significant ripple effect in the community. For example, health professionals and services that proactively prepare for future extreme weather events will also help build more resilient communities.”

The paper was written by Climate Commissioner and internationally renowned scientist, Professor Lesley Hughes, and expert in climate change and health, Professor Tony McMichael.

Releasing the report in Sydney recently Hughes said the key finding was that, “climate change is one of the most serious threats to Australians' health, especially those in our community who are already most vulnerable”.

“It is important that Australians are aware of the risks of climate change to their health and the health of their family and community. That is why we have produced this report.”

The Climate Commission said the report had been reviewed by its expert science advisory panel, which includes members of the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology.

The commission was established earlier this year to provide an authoritative source of information on climate change science and solutions. It brings together internationally-renowned climate scientists with policy and business leaders.

Responding to the report, the Australian Medical Association called on the government to develop a national strategy to cope with the impact of climate change on public health.

Executive Director of Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association, Prue Power, said the report clearly shows that climate change is a serious threat and is likely to put increasing pressure on hospitals and healthcare facilities.

In a joint statement, Australian health bodies, health professionals and research scientists called for an effective and immediate response to climate change by the health system.

The paper was written by Climate Commissioner and scientist, Professor Lesley Hughes, and expert in climate change and health, Professor Tony McMichael.
To read the full report go to: www.climatecommission.gov.au

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