Extreme weather injuries on the increase


Friday, 03 November, 2023

Extreme weather injuries on the increase

A new report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) has revealed that hospital admissions for injuries resulting from extreme weather have increased — especially those relating to heat.

The report, ‘Let’s talk about the weather: injuries related to extreme weather’, examined hospital admissions over the past decade, isolating those injuries that were a direct result of extreme weather.

The data did not include cases where patients were treated in hospital emergency departments but didn’t require admission to the hospital. Neither were injuries that were indirectly related to the weather included, such as those from road traffic accidents that occur due to wet weather, since the primary cause of this type of injury would be recorded as ‘transport’.

“Evidence has shown that over the past three decades, there has been an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, such as extreme heat, bushfires, extreme cold, rain and storm-related events (including high rainfall, floods and cyclones),” said AIHW spokesperson Dr Heather Swanston (PhD).

“We are seeing this reflected in hospitalisations and deaths.

“In the 10 years from 2012 to 2022, there were 9119 hospitalisations for injury in Australia directly attributable to extreme weather. Over a similar period, from 2011 to 2021, there were 677 deaths due to extreme weather-related injury,” Swanston added.

Extreme heat the dominant cause

Extreme weather-related hospitalisations spiked at over 1000 cases every 3 years, with the spikes becoming progressively higher. There were 1027 of these hospitalisations in 2013–14, 1033 in 2016–17 and 1108 in 2019–20. In each 3-year period, extreme heat had the biggest impact on hospitalisations and deaths.

In the 10-year period analysed, exposure to excessive natural heat was the cause of 7104 injury hospitalisations and 293 deaths.

In all states and territories barring Tasmania, heat was the most common cause of hospitalisation for extreme weather-related injuries. From 2019 to 2022, there were 2143 Australian hospital admissions related to extreme heat, including 717 patients from Queensland, 410 from Victoria, 348 from NSW, 266 from South Australia, 267 from Western Australia, 73 from the Northern Territory, 23 from the ACT and 19 from Tasmania.

Impacts of other types of extreme weather

The report also included state and territory data on hospitalisations related to extreme cold, bushfires and storms.

Extreme cold was behind 773 injury hospitalisations and 242 deaths during the 10-year period analysed, while extreme rain or storms accounted for 348 injury hospitalisations and 77 deaths. The number of injuries related to bushfires was higher in El Niño years.

Mitigating future risk

While hospital admissions for injuries associated with extreme weather make up a small proportion of all hospitalised injuries, these data provide a starting point for counting extreme weather-related injuries, AIHW said.

The report has highlighted opportunities to develop weather-related injury surveillance systems — something pertinent to the current El Niño event that is likely to continue until at least the end of February 2024, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. In Australia, an El Niño includes a period of reduced rainfall, higher temperatures and increased bushfire danger.

Image caption: Canberra, Australia, January 2020. Image credit: iStock.com/ Daniiielc

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