There is new evidence that the impact on human health from a tropical cyclone or hurricane last long after the winds have subsided.
Researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University’s Earth Institute and colleagues at Colorado State University and Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health have found hospitalisation in older adults significantly increase following exposure to a tropical cyclone.
The researchers used data over 16 years on 70 million Medicare hospitalisations and a comprehensive database of county-level local winds associated with tropical cyclones to examine how tropical cyclone wind exposures affect hospitalisations from 13 mutually exclusive, clinically meaningful causes, along with over 100 sub-causes. This study is the first comprehensive investigation of the impact of hurricanes and other tropical cyclones on all major causes and sub-causes of hospitalisations.
Over 16,000 additional hospitalisations were associated with tropical cyclones over a ten-year average exposure. Analyses showed a 14 percent average rise in respiratory diseases in the week after exposure.
The day after tropical cyclones with hurricane-force winds respiratory disease hospitalizations doubled. Also reported was an average 4 percent rise in infectious and parasitic diseases and 9 percent uptick in injuries. Hospitalisations from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) surged 45 percent the week following tropical cyclone exposure compared to weeks without exposure.
“We know that hurricanes and other tropical cyclones have devastating effects on society, particularly on the poorest and most vulnerable” said Robbie M. Parks, PhD, Earth Institute post-doctoral fellow at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and first author. “But until now only limited previous studies have calculated their impacts on health outcomes. Current weather trends also indicate that we can expect tropical cyclone exposure to remain a danger to human health and wellbeing, and could cause devastation to many more communities, now and into the future. There is no doubt that extreme weather events, such as tropical cyclones, are a great threat to human health in the U.S. and many other places in the world–now and with climate change in the future. Our study is a major first step in understanding how tropical cyclone exposure impacts many different adverse health outcomes.
This rise in hospitalisations was driven primarily by increases in emergency hospitalisations. The researchers point out that there may have been cases where exposure to the cyclones prevented normal medical care, compelling people to go to the hospital to access services that they might otherwise get outside a hospital setting without the storm. For example, if those with respiratory issues experienced loss of power–often a result from tropical cyclone winds–they may have turned to hospitals if they needed power for medical equipment that a hospital could furnish.
However, for certain causes, such as certain cancers, the authors also reported decreases in hospitalizations. These decreases were driven by non-emergency hospitalisations, indicating that people possibly cancelled scheduled hospitalisations because of the storm, which may have longer-term impacts on health.
The researchers said they anticipate that adequate forecasting of tropical cyclones might help, for example, in the planning of setting up shelters to provide electricity and common medications and creating easy ways for vulnerable people with certain chronic conditions to find and use those resources outside of the hospital.