Second Opinion: How we can prevent heat waves from killing thousands of people every year

Although nearly all heat-related deaths are preventable, heat waves kill thousands worldwide each year. At this time, an extreme heat wave in India and Pakistan, affecting around 1 billion people, is “testing the limits of human survivability,” said Chandni Singh, lead author of the report. The sixth assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, warns. In April, the average maximum temperature for northwest and central India was the highest in 122 years.

In recent years, similarly extreme conditions have occurred in the United States, Australia, Europe, Scandinavia and Japan, resulting in thousands of hospitalizations and deaths. Extreme heat is also associated with increased preterm birth, low birth weight and stillbirth; reduced worker productivity; higher rates of chronic kidney disease of unknown cause; and increased suicide.

Therefore, excessive heat is a “society” problem. Such conditions are not only harmful to human health, but also have negative impacts on infrastructure, crop yields and poultry mortality, threaten livelihoods and undermine food security. . The 2021 heat dome over the Pacific Northwest and western Canada is a case in point.

It’s a virtually impossible event without climate change. The temperature was about 41 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the previous record, causing about 1,000 deaths and a 69-fold increase in heat-related emergency room visits. Yields from wheat and cherry trees plummeted, and millions of mussels, mussels and oysters were cooked in their oceanic habitats, threatening food security and livelihoods for indigenous peoples and communities. low-income communities.

Nearly 40% of heat-related deaths are attributable to climate change. And because climate change is expected to increase the frequency, intensity and duration of heat waves, the need for additional measures to protect people will only become more urgent. Without immediate and substantial investment to enhance the resilience of communities and health systems, deaths from heat exposure will increase.

Well-communicated, evidence-based action plans are needed to keep people calm and reduce hospitalizations and deaths. In addition to early warning and response systems, longer-term planning is needed for life on a warmer planet. That means providing more green and green spaces, changing building materials, and focusing on ways to cool people rather than the surroundings.

Early warning and response systems require more than a single threshold to determine when a heatwave begins. Effective systems should also include collaborative processes and take into account local capacities and limitations. Health ministries will need to work closely with hydrometeorological services, police and fire departments, emergency services, agencies responsible for aged care, and a trusted voice for communities. vulnerable populations (such as adults over 65) and disadvantaged communities.

Effective early warning systems already exist worldwide, including in resource-poor places like Ahmedabad, India. Furthermore, organizations like the Global Thermal Health Information Network are collecting and sharing data on local and national best practices and experiences. The need for additional guidance is growing rapidly, with the frequency and severity of heatwaves increasing.

However, most early warning systems today do not explicitly take the risks of climate change into account. To be more adaptive, planners should have timelines for reviewing changes in early and late summer, and forge regional partnerships to ensure consistent messaging. There will also be a need for early warning systems with multiple thresholds, such as temperature measurements combined with local knowledge of particularly vulnerable populations.

For example, initial warnings may be issued days before the peak of a heatwave to alert at-risk groups such as the elderly, young children and pregnant women. A second set of warnings can then be issued at slightly higher temperatures for people working outdoors and those involved in sports or related activities, followed by a third set of warnings for the public at the usual threshold for declaring a heatwave. These warnings need to be combined with effective communication, so that people have the proper incentive to take the appropriate measures to stay calm.

Even after these improvements, early warning systems need to be tested to determine their endurance to unprecedented temperatures. This can be done through exercises to identify weaknesses. Such tests include not only heatwaves but also compound risks such as heatwaves associated with wildfires or heatwaves that coincide with pandemics, as experienced by the Pacific Northwest. by 2021. Vulnerability mapping can be an effective tool to help decision-makers identify where interventions are most needed to protect human health and well-being.

A much warmer future requires urgent investments and immediate leverage on best practices and lessons learned from existing heat adaptation plans. Effective models need to be replicated to enhance resilience and sustainability. Unprecedented higher temperatures may be possible, but not unless we prepare for them.

Kristie L. Ebi is a professor of global health and occupational health and environmental health sciences at the University of Washington. Second Opinion: How we can prevent heat waves from killing thousands of people every year

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