Health and climate

On most measures of health, Indigenous Australians fare much worse than non-Indigenous Australians, including experiencing significantly higher rates of chronic disease and hospitalisation. However, until now no one has investigated whether there could be a connection between the rate of Indigenous Australians’ disease and hospitalisation and the climate in which they live.

This project uses weather data and hospital admissions records (1992 to 2011) to analyse rates of disease and hospitalisation among people living in the Northern Territory and northern South Australia. We are examining a wide range of diseases that are among the leading causes of Indigenous mortality, including heart disease, renal failure, rheumatic fever, intestinal infections, influenza and pneumonia. The admission rates for these diseases will then be related, via climate observation data, with extreme weather, particularly focusing on periods of extreme heat and humidity.

The admissions records from hospitals in Darwin, Gove, Katherine, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs have been de-identified to protect patients’ privacy. From this de-identified data, it is possible to compare differences in Indigenous and non-Indigenous rates of disease and hospital admissions during or immediately after days of extreme heat or humidity. We will also compare male and female admissions, to see if there is any gender difference in the incidence of serious disease due to the climate.

Our preliminary analysis has been presented at the Population Health Congress, Adelaide, 2012. This analysis has found that there is a higher rate of hospital admissions for indigenous compared to non-indigenous people. It also found a higher rate of admissions in the central region compared to the more coastal tropical region. Interestingly, higher admission rates occur in hot humid periods in the central region, but not in the hot dry periods. In the tropical region, higher admission rates occur in both the hot dry, and hot humid periods.

Identifying at-risk groups based on past hospital data is particularly important given CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology research that shows an observed trend of higher temperatures across Australia, as well as climate projections of more frequent and extreme hot and humid days in many parts of the country. Therefore, although this study has chosen to focus on people living in the Northern Territory and northern South Australia, its findings are likely to have wider implications.

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