HEALTH authorities should be doing more to prevent heat-related illnesses and deaths as vulnerable people, particularly the elderly, struggle to adapt to the changing conditions, emergency doctors say.
Dr Diana Egerton-Warburton, a member of the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine's public health committee, said she was surprised a prevention campaign was not already running. ''There's this great sense of urgency about the bushfires, but we really should have the same degree of urgency about heat-related illnesses,'' she said. ''Elderly Victorians have already died from heat-related illnesses and it's not even summer yet.''
Her comments came yesterday after the director of emergency management for the Department of Health and Human Services, Craig Lapsley, told the college's annual scientific meeting that the department was still working with local councils, health services, transport providers and power companies to determine how best to manage heat waves.
Despite last January's heat wave resulting in 374 deaths, Mr Lapsley indicated heat-related health concerns may not be a focus for the Government yet.
''From the Premier down, bushfires are the issue,'' he told the meeting. ''From our space, we're trying to get messages connected and even this morning, I've just come from a meeting with the fire chiefs and the Chief Commissioner of Police to say, 'Hey, (Victorian Chief Health Officer) John Carnie should be with the fire chiefs now, because you haven't got fire, you've got heat.''
Mr Lapsley expected a new hotline for heat-related health concerns soon.
Earlier this year, the State Government announced the expansion of a seniors register program - a database for people's details so they could be checked on during an emergency. It also announced $1.4 million for local councils to develop heatwave strategies, which could include opening public swimming pools longer.
A spokesman for Dr Carnie said although a management plan was yet to be released, prevention messages would be aired in the media when sustained heat was forecast.
Dr Egerton-Warburton said the elderly could be slow to adjust to changing weather, not opening windows or shedding cardigans. ''There really needs to be a co-ordinated public health campaign now to inform people about the dangers of heat … because hundreds of people will die.''