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As medical experts call the ongoing fallout from the devastating bushfires a public health crisis, the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) is appealing for a complex and comprehensive public health response to natural disasters.

The plea for a better health response comes as the Canberra Hospital has had around 120 respiratory presentations to its emergency department since December 31, likely attributed to the smoke, according to a report from the Canberra Times. While a young woman died of an asthma attack in her NSW home town that was smothered in smoke from the fires which had been burning for weeks.

“This season’s devastating bushfires have severely harmed the health of Australians, and we can expect significant ongoing impact on the health and wellbeing,” David Templeman, President of the PHHA said.

In a media statement the PHHA said the effects of the bushfires on health included breathing and heart problems, due to prolonged exposure to smoke, and anxiety and other mood disorders, related to the trauma and dislocation directly associated with the fires.

The association said it was likely that there would be other health effects. The severity of these health effects varies from premature death to less severe health outcomes including hospitalisations and simply feeling unwell.

The PHHA acknowledged while it was hard to draw a direct causal link to the fires, an excess of deaths and illnesses that is linked in time and place with the fires and smoke probably means that the fires were responsible.

Consequently we need to do better in protecting people from the health effects of fire and smoke, the PHHA stated.

The association has suggested the role of masks, filters, air filtration devices and smoke refuges together with the effect of certain behaviours, such as avoiding exercise and staying indoors, needs to be investigated so that health authorities can give proactive, evidence-based advice in future episodes.

Other measures the PHHA have proposed include:

  • Highlighting and maybe special intervention for those who are vulnerable, such as those with pre-existing heart and lung disease, pregnant women, infants and the elderly.
  • Consideration of the role of medicines in treating the consequences of smoke exposure.
  • Better guidance about when to advise people to relocate.
  • Interventions to promote resilience and capacity to recover, both in individuals and in affected communities.

The association also stressed that in the wake of fire and terrible smoke and ash, measured and informed public health messaging and public health promotion were crucial.

More research would highlight actions needed going forward, the statement said.