Physicians say bushfires are creating an unprecedented public health crisis

January 11, 2020

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians says that we are entering unprecedented territory in regard to the lasting health consequences of long-term exposure to smoke, as the bushfire crisis continues to impact communities right across Australia.

Our thoughts and deepest sympathies are with all of those affected by the catastrophic bushfires currently impacting large areas of Australia. The RACP appreciates the incredible efforts of firefighters, health workers, police, volunteers, charities, community members and all those working to protect life, homes and communities from the bushfires.

We recognise that many of our own members are affected by this crisis and are involved in treating victims or working as volunteer firefighters. We also remind our Fellows and trainees of the assistance available from the RACP Support Program. The RACP is engaging with other health sector organisations and responding to members inquiries regarding the support we can offer.

We urge people in and near fire zones to be aware of the risks of ongoing smoke exposure, heat stress and other associated health risks, to seek medical advice where needed and to heed any instructions given by emergency services personnel. Speak to your doctor or look for Government health advice about what to do in your situation. For advice on bushfire smoke and the use of masks, refer to the statement issued by the Chief Medical Officers.

Professor John Wilson, President-elect and a respiratory physician from the RACP, says “This is an unprecedented public health crisis and we don’t yet know the impact this prolonged exposure to bushfire smoke is going to have.

“Since the bushfire crisis began, doctors have already seen an increase in patients presenting with respiratory issues.

“Long term health impacts may be felt not just by those on the frontline being directly impacted by the bushfires, but also those in metropolitan areas.

It’s critical that there is a comprehensive and co-ordinated response to this health crisis, and that all who need healthcare have timely access to expert health services – both in the immediate and longer term, as people may suffer a range of ongoing serious health consequences, particularly respiratory and cardiac conditions, as well as mental illness.” 

Associate Professor Linda Selvey, a public health physician from the RACP and President of the Australasian Faculty of Public Health Medicine, says “There are also potential health risks relating to evacuation such as food and water supply and quality, and communicable diseases from many people collected together in small places for prolonged periods.

“There are longer term health risks to people directly affected, particularly relating to mental health and risk of injury and illness associated with the clean-up and rebuilding process.

“All of these factors need to be taken into consideration as we tackle this national public health crisis.

“It is imperative that the impacts of climate change and the capacity of the health and emergency services systems to respond to the increasing extreme weather events that we are seeing are addressed. The RACP and the broader health sector have long called for a national climate and health strategy. This crisis underlines the urgent need for a national approach.”

The following spokespeople are available for comment in regard to the impacts of the bushfire crisis on health.

  • Respiratory physician, Professor John Wilson (Melbourne based)
  • Public health physician, Associate Professor Linda Selvey (Brisbane based)
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