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Open Access Research

Impact of two recent extreme heat episodes on morbidity and mortality in Adelaide, South Australia: a case-series analysis

Monika Nitschke1*, Graeme R Tucker1, Alana L Hansen2, Susan Williams2, Ying Zhang2 and Peng Bi2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Health, South Australia, 11 Hindmarsh Square Adelaide, South Australia 5000, Australia

2 Discipline of Public Health, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia 5005, Australia

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Environmental Health 2011, 10:42  doi:10.1186/1476-069X-10-42

Published: 19 May 2011

Abstract

Background

Extreme heatwaves occurred in Adelaide, South Australia, in the summers of 2008 and 2009. Both heatwaves were unique in terms of their duration (15 days and 13 days respectively), and the 2009 heatwave was also remarkable in its intensity with a maximum temperature reaching 45.7°C. It is of interest to compare the health impacts of these two unprecedented heatwaves with those of previous heatwaves in Adelaide.

Methods

Using case-series analysis, daily morbidity and mortality rates during heatwaves (≥35°C for three or more days) occurring in 2008 and 2009 and previous heatwaves occurring between 1993 and 2008 were compared with rates during all non-heatwave days (1 October to 31 March). Incidence rate ratios (IRRs) were established for ambulance call-outs, hospital admissions, emergency department presentations and mortality. Dose response effects of heatwave duration and intensity were examined.

Results

Ambulance call-outs during the extreme 2008 and 2009 events were increased by 10% and 16% respectively compared to 4.4% during previous heatwaves. Overall increases in hospital and emergency settings were marginal, except for emergency department presentations in 2008, but increases in specific health categories were observed. Renal morbidity in the elderly was increased during both heatwaves. During the 2009 heatwave, direct heat-related admissions increased up to 14-fold compared to a three-fold increase seen during the 2008 event and during previous heatwaves. In 2009, marked increases in ischaemic heart disease were seen in the 15-64 year age group. Only the 2009 heatwave was associated with considerable increases in total mortality that particularly affected the 15-64 year age group (1.37; 95% CI, 1.09, 1.71), while older age groups were unaffected. Significant dose-response relationships were observed for heatwave duration (ambulance, hospital and emergency setting) and intensity (ambulance and mortality).

Conclusions

While only incremental increases in morbidity and mortality above previous findings occurred in 2008, health impacts of the 2009 heatwave stand out. These findings send a signal that the intense and long 2009 heatwave may have exceeded the capacity of the population to cope. It is important that risk factors contributing to the adverse health outcomes are investigated to further improve preventive strategies.