“Hospital emergency departments (EDs) are at the forefront of treating the impacts from these catastrophic bushfires,” said ACEM President Dr John Bonning.
“Emergency physicians up and down the east coast of Australia are treating firefighters with smoke inhalation and burn injuries, vulnerable older people, people with chronic respiratory and cardiac conditions, and young children and babies.
“Given smoke haze from bushfires can exacerbate pre-existing respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses and conditions, patients with histories of conditions such as asthma, emphysema and allergies, as well as pre-existing cardiac conditions, are most at risk. Heatwaves can also lead to increased presentations for conditions such as heatstroke, cardiac events and mental health issues.
“This disproportionately affects some of our most vulnerable patients, including the elderly and children. It is also an equity issue, as people without insulated homes, or who are unable to afford air conditioning, are at increased risk.”
With millions of people exposed to extreme levels of hazardous air and extreme heat, EDs are already feeling the brunt of climate related increases in presentations.
Information obtained by ACEM from one major metropolitan Sydney hospital reveals that for the first nine days of December there was a more than 30% increase in presentations for cardiac and respiratory illnesses, compared to the same period last year.
The increased pressure on EDs resulting from the fires is also deeply concerning in the context of data from the Bureau of Health Information showing a dramatic increase in the overall number of critically ill patients presenting to New South Wales EDs, and national figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare showing EDs nationally are already struggling to keep up with demand.
ACEM Immediate Past President Dr Simon Judkins said: “The evidence is clear that climate change related disasters will continue over summer, and for years to come. We need governments to track and publicly report on the impact of these fires on rates of injury, morbidity and mortality in the community, and to take immediate and sustained action to address and mitigate the impacts that this climate emergency presents.”
“Climate change presents an immediate risk to the capacity and ability of emergency departments, health systems and the medical workforce to cope with increased demand and more frequent and intense disasters,” said Dr Judkins.
“Governments need to act immediately to reduce emissions and talk honestly to the community about the risks to health and wellbeing and the need for adaptation strategies to minimise the harms that climate change already poses to human health.”