Alabama Tracks Heat-Related Injuries, Deaths For The First Time

By: Jeff Hansen -- The Birmingham News
By: Jeff Hansen -- The Birmingham News

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- For the first time, the Alabama Department of Public Health is gathering — day by day — a full summer’s record of heat-related illnesses and deaths.

“Each year, unfortunately, people die,” said Jim McVay, director of health promotion and chronic disease for the state Department of Public Health.

“Last year, eight individuals died,” McVay said. “The year before that, nine died.”

The toll so far this year is five deaths, four of them since the State Committee of Public Health passed an emergency rule on June 29 that added heat-related illnesses and fatalities to the list of diseases that must be reported to the department. This emergency rule came as an early heat wave hit Alabama, with highs in Birmingham reaching 103 or 104 on June 29 to July 1.

Between that time and Aug. 3, hospitals across the state reported 650 cases of heat-related illness, in addition to the deaths.

“We want people to take precautions,” McVay said. “Those most at risk are individuals with heart problems, hypertension, poor circulation, obesity, or people who take medications that interfere with the body’s ability to handle heat.”

“In addition, people who do not live in an air-conditioned home — or because of cost and financial considerations won’t run their conditioner — are at risk,” McVay said.

The Health Department’s Injury Prevention Division uses health promotion and education to try to cut death and disabilities from 11 types of unintentional injuries and four kinds of intentional injuries. Because these injuries have highly predictable patterns and recognizable risk factors, they are viewed as preventable health problems, not as accidents.

The unintentional injuries targeted by the Health Department are injuries that are bicycle-related, cold-related, heat-related, fire-related, water-related, and holiday or toy related, as well as injuries from falls, heater malfunctions, lawn mowers, motor vehicle crashes and poisoning. The intentional injuries are caused by intimate partners or domestic violence, sexual assault or rape, suicide, and youth violence.

Two of the five heat-related deaths this summer occurred in Jefferson County, and there was a single death each in Lauderdale, Coffee and Marengo counties.

“Three deaths were people in their early 60s, and two were people 45 to 60,” McVay said.

“If you have someone who is at risk, the family needs to be checking on them during the day,” he said. “Also you can take them someplace that is air-conditioned to let them have a break from this high heat.”

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