Heat-related deaths have been so prevalent of late that health experts are calling for the root cause – climate change – to be added to death certificates as a cause of death.
Heat-related deaths have been “substantially underreported” on national records, say Australian National University (ANU) researchers, who claim the number of deaths attributed to excessive natural heat is at least 50 times more than recorded on death certificates.
In the past 11 years, 340 deaths in Australia were recorded as being due to excessive heat but further analysis found 36,765 deaths could have been attributed to heat.
“Climate change is a killer, but we don’t acknowledge it on death certificates,” said study co-author Dr Arnagretta Hunter.
“There is a second component on a death certificate which allows for pre-existing conditions and other factors.
“If you have an asthma attack and die during heavy smoke exposure from bushfires, the death certificate should include that information.
“We can make a diagnosis of disease like coronavirus, but we are less literate in environmental determinants like hot weather or bushfire smoke.”
The research published in The Lancet Planetary Health suggests Australia’s national heat-related mortality rate is around 2 per cent.
“Climate change is the single greatest health threat that we face globally even after we recover from coronavirus,” said Dr Hunter.
“We are successfully tracking deaths from coronavirus, but we also need healthcare workers and systems to acknowledge the relationship between our health and our environment.
“In Australia heat is the most dominant risk posed from climate change.”
The analysis has prompted calls for death certification to be modernised to reflect the impact of large-scale environmental events.
“We know the summer bushfires were a consequence of extraordinary heat and drought and people who died during the bushfires were not just those fighting fires – many Australians had early deaths due to smoke exposure,” said Dr Hunter.
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