Short-term health issues surged after horrific bushfire season

Last year’s bushfire season saw an unprecedented number of us reaching for asthma inhalers.

Last year’s bushfire season saw an unprecedented number of us reaching for asthma inhalers.

Last summer’s horrific bushfire season saw the rates of emergency visits for respiratory problems and sales of asthma medication skyrocket, a new report has found.

It comes as the Therapeutic Goods Administration says it is preparing for this year’s season, working to ensure Australia’s medical stockpile can keep up with the demand.

The report, Australian bushfires 2019-2020: Exploring the short-term health impacts, looked at the impacts of the poor air quality on health.

Australians need no reminding of the thick haze that covered most of the continent last summer. Its health effects are still concerning experts.

In some regions, visits to the emergency departments almost doubled, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report found.

The thick haze spread across much of the country. Photo: AAP

“Some areas of New South Wales were affected more than others, with emergency department visits rising by more than 50 per cent in the Capital Region, during times of peak bushfire activity, and 86 per cent in the Riverina region,” AIHW spokesperson Richard Juckes said.

“The bushfire season of 2019-2020 saw widespread destruction of land, national parks and property, and tragically 33 people lost their lives.”

The smoke-related health costs of the 2019-2020 bushfire season have been estimated to be $1.95 billion, and the long-lasting effects are still unclear.

Never-before-seen peaks

Research shows some places had it worse than others.

Canberra residents experienced the worst air quality in the Territory’s history, and on some days, the worst recorded air quality in the world.

“In the week beginning January 5, hourly PM2.5 concentrations at the Canberra-based Florey air quality monitoring station reached 2,49m3 – hourly readings of 300 and above are considered ‘extremely poor’,” Mr Juckes said.

Analysis of pharmaceutical sales data shows with the smoke came asthma – with sales of medication increasing substantially.

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Many Australians suffered health impacts because of the fires. Photo: AAP

In NSW’s Coffs Harbour–Grafton region, there were sales increases of 70 per cent for inhalers to help with shortness of breath for the week beginning November 10.

There was clearly little improvement in the following week, with sales staying 43 per cent above usual levels.

In the Capital Region in the week beginning December 29, there was a 63 per cent increase.

Brian Oliver leads the Respiratory Molecular Pathogenesis Group at the University of Technology Sydney. He said the increase in the sale of inhalers was surprising.

“One surprising feature highlighted by the report was the increased sales of inhalers, which are used to manage shortness of breath,” Professor Oliver said.

“The report did not examine who was buying these inhalers: Was this people with pre-existing lung diseases buying life-saving medications, or was this people panic-buying, as we have seen with COVID-19?”

The season ahead

The TGA has sought to assure Australians there is enough in the medical stockpiles to get us through another season of respiratory-related disorders, should we face more bushfires.

“There is currently no national shortage of salbutamol products, which includes metered-dose inhalers (puffers), dry powder inhalers and nebulisers,” a TGA spokesperson told TND.

Significant grass and vegetation growth and above-average temperatures have created the potential for a devastating fire season across southern parts of Australia this year.

Australians are being urged to prepare for a season of punishing bushfires and damaging rains.

Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud is urging people to fortify their defences in case of disasters over summer.

“While we can work with authorities to properly prepare, it’s also critical families, households and individuals do what they can to prepare themselves,” he said on Friday.

Australians are being asked to prepare for this season. Photo: AAP

“By planning ahead, people can reduce the risk of injury and damage to property.”

The AIHW report, released on Wednesday, further found the bushfires didn’t just affect our physical health.

Mr Juckes said there were almost 19,000 bushfire-related Medicare subsidised mental health services accessed by 5094 patients.

Some 46 per cent of those services were delivered through a registered psychologist.

Topics: Bushfires
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