Hospital presentations up 86% during Dunns Road blaze

Tumut, and much of the state, was consumed by smoke at the beginning of the year.

Respiratory-related presentations to emergency departments increased by 86 per cent in the Riverina region during the Dunns Road bushfire, according to a new health report.

The report, released last week by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), concentrates on the period from September 2019 to March 2020 and explores the short-term health impacts of the devastating bushfire season.

The smoke-related health costs of the 2019-20 bushfire season are estimated to be $1.95 billion, nine times higher than the median of the previous 19 bushfire seasons, with visits to NSW hospital emergency departments for respiratory conditions increasing compared to the 2018-19 season.

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

Additionally, some areas of the country experienced worse air quality 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.

The report states that during peaks in the bushfires, the number of people visiting a general practitioner (GP) dropped. The largest decreases in claims for GP attendances were seen in bushfire-affected regions during the weeks when air quality was recorded as particularly poor, including the Riverina and Southern Highlands – both an 18 per cent decrease.

“This drop in attendance may also have been influenced by health advice to stay indoors, which could likely have encouraged people to delay GP visits for minor health reasons,” the report reads.

Analysis of pharmaceutical sales data revealed that sales and dispensing of asthma reliever medications, including salbutamol (often marketed as Ventolin or Asmol), also increased in bushfire-affected regions.

As well as physical health impacts, the report also looked at the mental health impacts of the bushfires. 

It noted that more than half of Australian adults are estimated to have felt anxious or worried about the bushfires, with bushfire-related calls to the Lifeline crisis support hotline increasing so much that a telephone line was introduced solely for those impacted by the fires.

Mr Juckes noted that the AIHW report focuses on the short-term impacts, but it will be important to monitor any potential longer-term health and mental health impacts of the 2019–20 bushfires.

“There were almost 19,000 bushfire-related Medicare-subsidised mental health services accessed by 5,094 patients (as at 11 October 2020),” Mr Juckes said.

“The most commonly accessed services were provided by a registered psychologist (46 per cent) or a clinical psychologist (41 per cent).”

Deaths are the most extreme health impact of the bushfires, and tragically 33 people lost their lives during the Black Summer bushfires, including nine firefighters. The report states that there was no change during the 2019-20 bushfire season compared with data for previous years when analysing data for deaths.

The AIHW report brings together data from NSW emergency departments, air quality monitoring, GP visits, Medicare-subsidised respiratory testing and pharmaceutical sales data from all states and territories, with the aim of ensuring health services are sufficiently equipped to deal with any immediate and short-term physical and mental health impacts of bushfires in the future.

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