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Unprepared and Vulnerable? Another Heatwave Hits The UK

Spike in deaths coinciding with high temperatures, with frail, older people with kidney or heart problems most vulnerable

by Deborah Gillard

During the 15-day peak of the heatwave in June and July in England and Wales, nearly 700 more deaths than average were recorded. Researchers explain that an increase in deaths is fully expected during heatwaves, but they specified that the provisional data recorded requires further research to determine if the higher mortality is statistically significant for the summer months.


Dr Adrian Boyle of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine explained: “The heatwave will have been associated with a number of excess deaths. The people most at risk in a heatwave are the frail elderly with heart and kidney problems.”


In a report published on the 27th of July, a cross-party committee of MPs concluded that the UK is “woefully unprepared” for deadly heatwaves. The MPs say ministers must act to protect people, especially with an ageing population in the UK. They proclaimed that the government had ignored warnings from its official climate change adviser, and that without action, heat-related deaths will triple to 7,000 a year by the 2040s. Scientists differ on whether the current global rash of heatwaves is definitely caused by climate change; but all agree that future heat waves will be hotter and more frequent thanks to carbon emissions. The MPs highlight a warning from the Met Office that UK summer temperatures could regularly reach 38.5°C by the 2040s.


The pick of the heatwave was from the 25th of June to the 9th of July, according to the Met Office. During those 15 consecutive days, the temperature raised above 28°C. The deaths registered during the weeks covering this period were 663 higher than the average for the same weeks over the previous five years, a Guardian analysis of data from the Office of National Statistics shows.


It was recorded that in previous years, hundreds of additional deaths were associated with periods of heatwave conditions, in June 2016 and June 2017 for example.


Dr Isobel Braithwaite of the public health charity, Medact, said: “Although the 2018 data is only preliminary, there seems to have been a concerning increase in the number of deaths. This fits in with current scientific evidence, which clearly shows that long periods of very warm weather can harm people’s health, particularly at extremes of age and in people with other pre-existing health problems.”


“While working in A&E this summer, I saw patients presenting with heatstroke and other conditions that were probably exacerbated by the hot weather, and this obviously places an additional strain on our already struggling health services”, she said.


“Some trusts have reported record numbers of people coming in to A&E, with increased emergency admissions, often for respiratory problems and conditions made worse by dehydration. We have heard concerns about large numbers of people from care homes requiring treatment”, explained Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers.


The president of the Society for Acute Medicine, Dr Nick Scriven, said: “The pressure was real and felt at the frontline. I would not be surprised at all if an effect on mortality is shown. The figure of about 700 would seem very plausible.” He explained that dehydration can lead to many issues, from dizziness and falls to an increased risk of infections, heart attacks and strokes. High temperatures can increase air pollution, and some urban areas including London saw alerts issued for ozone pollution. According to Scriven, that can really affect those with respiratory conditions. He also specified that the heat puts the NHS staff under pressure: “NHS staff are working in often intolerable conditions. Compounding the heat is the fact that this is prime holiday season and there is little slack in the system regarding staff number.”


Braithwaite warned hospitals and care homes that they should be made ready to cope with high temperatures. “We now know that the frequency and intensity of heatwaves is set to increase significantly over the coming decades because of climate change, so we have to heed this warning call in order to protect the public’s health”, she said. “We also need to treat the underlying cause of the problem by rapidly cutting emissions.”


The extreme heat has highlighted the shortcomings of ageing buildings, which are not designed or equipped to deal with these conditions”, said Cordery. “Staff and patients are paying the price now for past decisions to delay investment in the NHS estate.”


It is important to know that the ONS doesn’t record deaths when they occur but when they are registered; even though 77% of deaths are recorded within five days.


An ONS spokeswoman claimed: “ We cannot say whether any of these deaths are due to the heatwave or from other causes. Causes of deaths data for 2018 will be published next summer and they may provide a better understanding.”

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