News | Sunday, 30 May 2010

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Heat waves are dangerous, but the cold kills more

Debunking the popular belief that that the elderly are more at risk during the hot summer days, scientific evidence shows they are more likely to die during cold spells.
This emerges from a study on the relationship between fluctuations in temperatures and the mortality rate, published in a joint publication of the Environment Health Directorate and the World Health Organisation.
While in winter the average daily mortality rate for persons aged over 65 is set at 18 per 100,000 people, in summer the mortality rate falls to 12.5 per 100,000 people.
The report notes that while health warnings are given for hot weather, due to the mildness of Maltese winters, fewer precautions are taken during cold spells.
Health warnings are only issued by the Department of Health when the maximum temperature reaches 30ºC, with humidity above 84%.
Since it is difficult to pinpoint an exact temperature when health warnings can be issued in winter, the study calls on the authorities to conduct a campaign to educate the public on how to keep themselves and their homes warm during the whole period.
It also notes that situation is aggravated by the fact that Maltese houses are made of stone and offer no insulation to heat loss.
The results are based on daily mortality rates between 1992 and 2005 compared to daily temperatures in the same period.
The study showed that the largest number of deaths occurs between January and February, with October registering the lowest mortality rate. The least number of deaths are registered at temperatures of 27ºC. But when temperatures rise above 27ºC, the daily mortality rate tends to increase more rapidly at each degree rise, compared to when it drops below 27ºC.
The report attributes the increase in mortality during the winter months due to the fact that regions more adapted to hot weather may be less adapted to cold weather. This was confirmed by studies in Greece, with relatively warm winters like Malta. While in colder countries priority is given to keeping warm, people living in warmer countries tend to wear less effective clothing outdoors and inhabit cooler houses.
A study by Eurowinter found that with an outdoor temperature of 7ºC outdoors, the mean living-room temperature was 19.2ºC in Athens and 21.7ºC in Finland. The same study found that the percentage increases in deaths for every degree fall in temperature below 18ºC was greater in warmer regions than in colder ones.
The study was conducted by Dr Neville Calleja, Director of the Health Information and Research Directorate, Dr Liberato Camilleri from the University’s Department of Statistics, Dr Kathleen England from the Health Information Directorate, Dr Roberto Debono from the Public Health Regulation Department, chief Met Officer Saviour Porter and Sabrina Plapp from the University of Ulm.

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