BY ANABEL STAROSTA
The current heat wave in India began in May 2015. It has brought India the highest recorded temperatures since 1995 and has lead to the deaths of 2,330 people so far. [i] The country cycles through heat waves and monsoons. This year, pre-monsoon showers ended early, causing an extended heat wave that is likely to persist until the arrival of the subsequent monsoon season. As India struggles to cope with the ongoing health threats and deaths, the heat wave serves as a distressing reminder of heat’s injurious effects on health as temperatures increase worldwide.
Heat waves pose health risks since heat can increase pre-existing health threats or even create new ones. Ordinarily, heat causes heat exhaustion, which includes dizziness, headache and fainting, or heat stroke, which includes high body temperature and unconsciousness.[ii] Additionally, the effects of heat on health are even more severe in developing countries, where other health problems such as malaria, malnutrition, and diarrhea persist. Heat increases the risk of infection for malaria as high temperatures allow mosquitos to proliferate and, consequently, infect more people.[iii] Diarrhea and malaria also result in dehydration, which is augmented by the high temperatures and water shortages associated with heat waves. Chronic cardiovascular and respiratory diseases also tend to worsen in extreme heat.
The health risks associated with heat waves are especially prevalent in less developed countries such as India. Those who have suffered most from the heat wave are the elderly and the poor, particularly laborers who work outdoors even in the intense heat, leading to the high death toll.[iv] Nearly 700 million Indians living in rural areas depend on agriculture and natural resources for their livelihood and continue to work under these extreme conditions.[v] The high temperatures coupled with extremely high humidity render the human body incapable of cooling itself down and this leads to the prevalence of heat stroke and the exacerbation of other health threats. [vi] Additionally, India’s limited public health infrastructure has led to overwhelmed hospitals and power outages, preventing proper treatment and increasing total deaths.
Although this is the worst heat wave in recent history, the weather pattern is recurring. In such circumstances, precautionary and reactionary measures, such as Ahmedabad’s Heat Action Plan, become crucial. The aforementioned plan attempts to reduce heat-related health effects by facilitating public awareness of heat risks and prevention methods, alerts for imminent heat waves, and increased water stations and cooling spaces during heat waves.iv
While India is at particularly high risk for heat-related illness and death, more highly developed countries must also pay attention to the current heat wave and proceed with caution. Climate change will likely cause more frequent and more severe heat waves worldwide, and although some countries may be better equipped to handle the health risks, none of them is immune to heat. In the mean time, we can only hope that heat-related illnesses and deaths in India decrease with the promise of the imminent monsoon.
[i] Whiteman, H. (2015, June 2). India heat wave kills 2,330 people as millions wait for rain. Retrieved June 3, 2015.
[ii] Harmon, K. (2010, July 23). How Does a Heat Wave Affect the Human Body? Retrieved June 3, 2015.
[iii] CBS News. (n.d.). 8 health risks that could get worse with climate change. Retrieved June 3, 2015.
[iv] Mavalankar, D., Connolly, M., & Jaiswal, A. (2015, May 28). Practical Ways to Prepare for Life-Threatening Heat Waves. Retrieved June 3, 2015.
[v] Majra, J., & Gur, A. (2009, April 1). Climate change and health: Why should India be concerned? Retrieved June 3, 2015.
[vi] De Lange, C. (2015, May 30). The heat and the death toll are rising in India. Is this a glimpse of Earth’s future? Retrieved June 3, 2015.