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54% increase in heat-related deaths in older people globally in last two decades

India saw more than 31,000 heat-related deaths among people above 65 years in 2018

A man pours water on his face during a hot summer day in Hyderabad. (AP Photo/File)

The last two decades have seen a 54 per cent increase in heat-related deaths among the elderly, according to new evidence in the Lancet Countdown report. A record 2.9 billion additional days of heatwave exposure have affected people above the age of 65 years in 2019 – almost twice the previous high.

In 2019, India saw a record number of above-baseline days of heatwave exposure affecting its elderly population, at almost 775 million. Eight out of the 10 highest ranking years of heatwave exposure in the country have occurred since 2010. Meanwhile, heat-related deaths in people over 65 years have more than doubled since early 2000s to more than 31,000 in 2018.

The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change is releasing their 2020 report, which forms the flagship report of The Lancet on critical updates on the relationship between climate change and public health. The annual report tracks more than 40 indicators on links between health and climate change, and this year’s report presents the most worrying outlook to date, as key trends worsen.

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The impact of this includes growing levels of heat-related mortality among vulnerable people in all parts of the world, with 2,96,000 lives claimed in 2018. Globally, deaths from ambient PM 2.5 associated with coal fell by 50,000 in the same year. While the problem is of global concern, absolute numbers are the greatest in countries like India, which sees nearly half a million deaths a year from outdoor air pollution, which is the main source. Coal combustion by households, power plants and industries was responsible for almost 1,00,000 of these.

Heat and drought are also driving sharp increases in exposure to wildfires, resulting in burns, heart and lung damage from smoke, and the displacement of communities. India’s per capita spend on health adaptation is just $0.80, but this has risen from $0.60 per capita in 2015/16.

The report – a collaboration between expert from more than 35 institutions including the World Health Organisation (WHO) and World Meteorological Organisation, led by the University College London – has been published on the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement, when the world pledged to limit global warming to well below 2C.

The authors of the report said recovery from Covid-19 offers a key moment to act on climate change. “The pandemic has shown us that when health is threatened on a global scale, our economies and way of life can come to a standstill,” said Dr Ian Hamilton, executive director of the Lancet Countdown.

Health professionals are sounding the alarm on climate change. Earlier this year, 40 million healthcare professionals had signed a statement urging leaders to plan better, invest in those who are vulnerable, and provide jobs. The medical sector also has a big impact on global warming, and many healthcare providers are getting more involved in climate solutions.

Poornima Prabhakaran, deputy director, Centre for Environmental Health, Public Health Foundation of India, said The Lancet report has yet again highlighted India’s vulnerabilities, with heatwave related mortality and consequent economic implications of reduced workforce and curtailed labour days ranking among the highest in the world.

“Air pollution from continued dependence on fossil fuel combustion for power generation in India mandates an accelerated action plan for transition to cleaner forms of energy,” Prabhakaran said. She added that a renewed focus is required on strengthening public health workforce and infrastructure.

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