Two observatories in Delhi recorded temperatures of 49 degrees on Monday, May 16 showcasing that the city and its surrounding northern belt of India continues to struggle with the ongoing heat wave. The rising temperatures also raise questions on how the human body manages to sustain temperatures that are higher than its threshold value.
Human beings as warm-blooded animals can regulate their body temperatures as per the external climate and temperature. Yet, extremities such as severe cold or heat waves do have an underlying effect on bodily functions. In the case of colder temperatures, the body emanates heat to keep the person warm, which could further lead to hypothermia, frost bites and other illnesses. With heat, however, the body tries to keep itself cool by releasing electrolytes, minerals, and water in the form of sweat.
Coping with the scorching heat is a little more difficult at times like the current heat wave as India has rarely seen temperatures reaching 50 degrees in the national capital. BOOM spoke to Dr. Gita Prakash, a general physician at Max Hospitals in Delhi to understand the types of illnesses her patients are complaining about in the current times.
"I am treating patients who are complaining about sunstrokes, prickling heat, and fungal infections. Even though they are not stepping outside, the elderly are also complaining about issues as well as several paediatric patients continue to complain about heat," Dr. Prakash shared.
While the illnesses that the physician listed are normally reported during summers, she added that there has been a definite uptick in the number of patients with these complaints. Additionally, people are also feeling dizzy and losing consciousness in a few cases as they are unable to bear the heat.
If the initial symptoms are left unattended, it could lead to fatal consequences. Heat strokes have led to 11,571 deaths in the last decade (2011-2020) in India, according to the data on Accidental Deaths & Suicides in India published annually by the National Crime Records Bureau. It is the second leading cause of death among people due to a natural disaster or force following lightning and surpasses even deaths due to floods and cold in the last two decades.
What Should People Do To Protect Themselves From The Heat?
Dr. Dileep Mavalankar who helped formulate the Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan to understand precautions that should be undertaken, highlighted the different types of heat stroke that are caused due to the increased temperatures.
"There are levels of heat strokes. The first type is where people experience heat cramps. The next level is called heat syncope wherein the person experiences dizziness and is in and out of consciousness. Thirdly, people experience heat exhaustion where they are very fatigued, and continuously perspire and sweat. Finally, the most severe stage of the stroke is when the skin becomes dry, and the person stops sweating because the body has run out of liquids and is completely dehydrated. This is when the person needs medical help," Dr Mavlankar explained.
Both the doctors requested residents not to step out during the afternoon hours. When asked as to what daily wage labourers, domestic workers, frontline workers, who have to work through the heat should do, they suggested a few different means and measures.
"Work for 45 minutes, take a 15-minute break in the shade, hydrate themselves, protect their skin or cover it. Employers should donate cotton clothes to the workers, too," Dr. Prakash suggested.
Dr Mavalankar added that the workers should be given anchorage support so that if they reach the second level of heat stroke which he explained earlier, and are at a height, they have a surface to hold onto and reduce the risk of falling.
The doctors emphasised that citizens of all ages should keep themselves hydrated with different kinds of juices and liquids along with water. They also highlighted that those senior citizens who have other co-morbidities live in areas with proper ventilation.
"To avoid being infected by prickling heat or fungal infections, households should keep anti-fungal powders handy as well as donate them to families who cannot afford them," Dr. Prakash said. She also said that people should avoid doing any strenuous activity during the afternoon hours.
What Is The Government Doing For Improving Health During Heat Waves?
According to the World Health Organisation, every country should have heat action plans in place to effectively communicate the risks of heat illnesses and protect the extremely vulnerable groups during such times. In India, Ahmedabad was the first city to create a plan and Dr. Mavalankar, who is a part of the Indian Institute of Public Health helped in formulating the plan back in 2010.
Till 2016, India did not have an action plan in place. The National Disaster Management Authority finally released the guidelines titled 'Preparation of Action Plan-Prevention and Management of Heat Wave' which addresses the need for an action plan and ways to go about the same in 2016 which have been revised twice since then.
The Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan, on the basis of which the national guidelines have been created, chalks out specific measures for every vulnerable group in the city. The guidelines have prescribed norms for municipal nodal officers, health workers, and communities. These norms are divided into actions that should be carried out before a heat wave, during one, and after one.
These norms involve creating cooling centres, distributing messages and alerts about the heat wave, ensuring that health experts are trained to deal with the prevailing situation, and teaching people to identify traits and symptoms in order to carry out self-preservation activities.
"Along with heat action plan, the government should track all-cause mortality because heat indirectly affects senior citizens leading them to be hospitalised with reports of heart failure, kidney failure, if left unattended," Dr. Mavalankar concluded.
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