Intense heat consequences of unabated global climate change — experts
THE warning by the Nigerian Meteorological Agency, NIMeT, that Nigerians should brace up for more hot days, warm nights and heatwave across the country did not come as a surprise. Indeed over the past few months, Nigerians have been on the receiving end of intense waves of hot and humid air currents blowing across the nation, a development which has become a topic of popular discussion and a source of concern among medical and scientific experts.
By Chioma Obinna
Particularly worrisome is the fact that a number of individuals and at times, entire families, have succumbed to the negative effects of the heat. Public and private hospitals have been witnessing increased admissions of patients complaining of heat-related health problems, including heat stroke and fainting spells.
However, researchers have explained that the current hot days, hot nights and intense heat waves are consequences of unabated global climate change. They are of the view that when sustained heat waves hit a region, the attendant health ramifications can be serious, including sunstroke and even major organ damage due to heat.
Warmest year: It is already on record that 2016 may become the warmest year on record if findings by scientists are anything to go by. Annual global temperature forecast suggests 2016 will be between 0.72°C and 0.95°C above the long-term average of 14°C.
In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Matthew Huber, a Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Purdue University, and Steven Sherwood, of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, analysed the highest tolerable heat-wave conditions.
They found that the earth is getting hotter and people’s health may suffer. They said that earth’s future temperatures could exceed livable limits in some regions and half of the world’s population would be put in an uninhabitable environment.
The study looked well beyond the year 2100 and found that a rise of 12 degrees Fahrenheit in the global average surface temperature would cause some areas to be so hot and humid that conditions would make it impossible for those without air conditioning to cool off through their skin.
In their view, the world may be experiencing a heat index of 170 degrees Fahrenheit and heat waves won’t affect just the elderly or young children but everyone.
Public health physician
The experts also expressed worry that as the temperatures linger above normal, the systems in the human body that enable it to adapt to heat may become overwhelmed.
Medical and scientific experts also cautioned that extreme heat often has deleterious effects on quality of health and urged Nigerians to take the warning serious, stressing that they should take adequate measures to ensure they do not suffer health wise as a result of the situation.
Dehydration: Reacting to the NiMeT alert, a public health physician and former Chief Medical Director, Lagos University Teaching Hospital, LUTH, Prof. Akin Osibogun, explained that the risks arising from hot days and warm nights would be dehydration due to excessive sweating.
“Skin rashes may also be on the increase. Excessive loss of body fluids remained the most potent risk,” Osibogun said, warning that excessive heat can result in heat stroke which is a consequence of dehydration. “If dehydration is persistent, renal function becomes impaired and the kidneys may eventually shut down if the dehydration remains uncorrected,” he added.
He said the best coping mechanism is for people to endeavour to replace lost fluids by drinking adequate volumes of water, avoid direct exposure under the sun during the days and wearing of light clothing to keep the body ventilated.
In his reaction to the current weather situation, an Internal Medicine and Endocrinology expert, also at the LUTH, Prof. Femi Fasanmade , said the rise in heat-related diseases required proper and appropriate dressing as an important factor towards coping with the situation.
Fasamade who is also the Chairman, Medical Advisory Committee, CMAC, of LUTH, said the environmental temperature does not have to hit 100°F for persons to be at risk. He explained that an individual’s general health and lifestyle may increase his or her chances of suffering a heat-related illness.
Lifestyle connection: On lifestyle factors that can increase heat stroke risk, Fasanmade advised that people who live in homes without fans or air conditioners to open their windows at night; create cross-ventilation by opening windows on two sides of the building; cover windows exposed to direct sunlight; and keep curtains, shades, or blinds drawn during the hottest part of the day.
The medic also advised that people who prefer to sleep outside at night should sleep in treated nets or apply insect repellent to avoid mosquito bites that can cause malaria.
Further, he said cultivation of a good dress sense at this time is preferable and warned that overdressing may be a problem.
“Select proper clothing. Natural fabrics such as cotton are best. People should know how to dress appropriately for the weather we are in. If your house is hot open your windows. If you don’t have nets, fix nets.
“Some people out of fashion will go and put on a hood and wear sweaters because they see it as the vogue, but that is inappropriate dressing because a person can even develop heat stroke by not drinking enough water. Sweating profusely when the temperature is high will only worsen the situation.
“In developed countries, when the temperature goes very high, there are water points provided around the town for people to drink from to avoid the heat stroke risk.”
Fasanmade who stated that there are usually climatic changes around January – February up till March due to the Harmattan, said when temperatures are very high, it is very easy for conditions such as upper respiratory tract to thrive.
Extreme heat, according to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, is linked to an average of 688 deaths each year in the US.
The CDC notes that when sustained heat waves hit a region, other health ramifications can be serious, including sunstroke and even major organ damage due to heat.
Findings by CDC: Director of the CDC’s Environmental Hazards and Health Effects Programme, Mike McGeehin says when a person is exposed to heat for a very long time, the first thing that shuts down is the ability to sweat and once a person stops perspiring, in very short order a person can move from heat exhaustion to heat stroke. When that happens, McGeehin said the body becomes very hot and eventually that begins to affect the brain, and the individual would begin to get confused and lose consciousness.
Central nervous system
The CDC Director also noted that extreme heat can make the body temperature to increase very rapidly; the central nervous system and circulatory system are also impacted. However, before someone gets full-blow heat stroke, the person will experience heat rash and muscle cramps if they are not dealt with, it can lead to more severe symptoms.
The expert said the most vulnerable to extended high temperatures are mostly urban dwellers who are elderly, isolated and don’t have access to air conditioning. Obese people are at increased risk as are people on certain medications. And people who are exercising or working in the heat, who don’t meet those criteria, can be at risk.
A study from the Chicago heat wave has found that medications such as diuretics for high blood pressure may increase risk of heat strokes. Other studies also showed that certain mental health medications may impact a person’s ability to deal with the heat.
Those at risk: Warm weather and outdoor activity generally go hand in hand. However, it is important for older people to take action to avoid the severe health problems often caused by hot weather. “Hyperthermia” is the general name given to a variety of heat-related illnesses. The two most common forms of hyperthermia are heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Of the two, heat stroke is especially dangerous and requires immediate medical attention.
- Avoid spending time under the sun
- Take more fluids but avoid alcohol and caffeine.
- Water and fruit and vegetable juices are best.
- Bathe, or sponge off with cool water.
- Always lie down and rest, preferably in a cool place.
- Babies and young children should be watched carefully during hot weather. They can quickly lose body fluids through perspiring, which can lead to dehydration. They need to drink regularly, wear light clothing and be kept cool.