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Hot autumn weather a reminder to protect vulnerable Victorians from heatwaves Analysis

Hot autumn weather a reminder to protect vulnerable Victorians from heatwaves

VCOSS has endorsed a statement from the Climate Council calling for an urgent and whole-of-government response to the rising numbers of deadly heatwaves.

VCOSS recently took part in the first ever Australian Summit on Extreme Heat and Health where a number of experts represented a wide range of health and related disciplines, including emergency management, emergency medicine, nursing, workplace safety, health policy, community services, climate science and academia. Chaired by Professor Fiona Stanley, Dr Liz Hanna and Professor Lesley Hughes, the summit discussed the health impacts of heatwave on vulnerable groups, staff and workers.

It was evident throughout the summit that Victoria currently leads the country in response to heatwaves.  Heatwave is acknowledged as a significant emergency risk in Victoria’s State Risk Report, and the State Heat Plan describes the State’s arrangements for reducing the impact and consequences of heat events on  the community, infrastructure and services.

The Victorian Department of Health and Human Services’ Heat health plan for Victoria recommends actions for health and community service providers before, during and after extreme heat.  As part of this, Survive the Heat resources encourage and educate individuals and the community to be aware of the impact of extreme heat on human health.

The department’s Heat Health Alert System  notifies local governments, departmental program areas, hospitals, and statewide or major metropolitan health and community service providers of forecast heatwave conditions likely to impact on human health. A Heatwave plan review toolis also available to help health and community service providers review their heatwave plans. All local governments are required to have heatwave plans.

VCOSS has advocated for the needs of vulnerable people during heatwave events for some years. The 2013 VCOSS report, Feeling the heat: heatwaves and social vulnerability in Victoria, found that a number of social, medical, economic and built environment factors place people at higher risk of adverse health and wellbeing outcomes during periods of extreme heat. A study by Monash University found the areas in Melbourne most vulnerable to heatwave included those with high proportions of elderly residents, non-English-speaking households and hot urban areas lacking vegetation.

VCOSS has stressed that heatwave planning and preparation needs to better accommodate the needs of people who at most at risk during extreme heat events.  This includes people who are older or who suffer from chronic health conditions, people who are homeless or live in poor quality housing, as well as people who lack the capacity – for a range of social and personal reasons – to change their circumstances or behaviour in extreme heat events.

The recent summit concluded that heatwave affects all sectors and that whole-of-government responses are required, including areas such as urban planning and housing, transport, health and community services and emergency services.

The summit identified three key priorities for governments to improve Australia’s health and community sectors’ readiness to deal with increasing pressures from extreme heat. These were to better prevent and prepare for heatwave, to better respond to heatwave, and to educate and raise awareness about the risks of heatwave.

The Climate Council has called for action to:

1) Prevent and prepare:

  • Mitigating, adapting and building resilience to the challenges of extreme heat
  • Incorporating climate-sensitive urban design into planning cities and towns. This includes smart infrastructure, housing, energy, water, shade and precinct planning

2) Respond: a whole-of-government response is required, including all levels of government across all states and regions. This response should include:

  • The acknowledgement of heatwaves as a hazard
  • The real-time release of impact data and forecasts by government agencies during and immediately following a heatwave, including data on the correlation between heatwaves and mortality/morbidity.
  • Development and implementation of a scaled response to heatwaves, similar to the scaled bushfire response
  • Improved understanding of the impacts of heatwaves on human health, the environment, infrastructure and the economy, now and into the future
  • The assessment of current and future response capacity to heatwaves

3)Educate and build awareness about heatwave risks, and develop effective warnings for the public, health and community services, and the Australian workforce:

  • Education should be supported by evidence-based advice and analysis of heatwaves and health impacts
  • Behavioural and cultural change is required to prevent and reduce heat stress
  • Health and community services require improved support to assist vulnerable groups
  • Educate workforces about heat stress and how it affects them.

Heat and health expert and summit co-chairs agreed these priorities would provide a roadmap for governments to tackle the health impacts of extreme heat.