Heatwaves pose a serious health threat, warns SA Medical Research Council
The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) has warned that infants, the elderly, people with disabilities, pregnant women, outdoor workers and those on chronic medications are the most vulnerable to death as a result of exposure to extreme heat.
This comes amid heatwaves in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and Northern Cape, with temperatures as high as 39°C this week.
Research conducted by the SAMRC and its partners drew a correlation between the way in which the biological, environmental, medical, socio-behavioural and geographical effects of extreme heat exposure have an adverse impact on morbidity and mortality in the most vulnerable communities in Africa.
Chief specialist scientist at the SAMRC’s environment and health research unit Dr Caradee Wright said studies on the relationship between extreme heat exposure and morbidity and mortality have been carried out in high-income countries.
“The extreme heat and heatwaves being experienced in January 2023 in South Africa pose a serious and concerning health threat to South Africans. We should take precautions such as drinking water regularly, if possible cooling arms and feet in a basin of water, using shade when outdoors and wearing a hat,” Wright said.
Where possible, people have been advised to avoid being outdoors during the hottest time of the day in the afternoon.
“Resilience to heatwaves as a result of climate change requires more than personal action,” said Wright.
“In light of climate threats and climate-related disaster risks facing South Africa, an all-encompassing approach, including education campaigns, climate-proofed housing, access to basic services and financial considerations that will help support resilient coping among South Africans is urgently required.”
Wright said those most vulnerable to death as a result of exposure to extreme heat either lack the ability to self-regulate their internal “thermostat” or are faced with excess heat exposure, as is the case for people working outdoors.
“It is essential that outdoor workers and their employers are trained to recognise the symptoms of heat illnesses and impacts.”
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