It is well established that days of extreme heat are dangerous for adults and can lead to excess deaths, particularly in vulnerable populations like older people. When temperatures rise, people can become severely ill or die if they are unable to effectively sweat and cool off. This can lead to an increase in internal body temperature.
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In addition to temperature-related illnesses like heat strokes or heat exhaustion, adults can also suffer cardiovascular and respiratory disorders. Last summer, a New York Times analysis found that the deadly heat wave in the Pacific Northwest resulted in 600 more deaths than would have been typical.
“We know that, due to climate change, days with extreme heat are going to be more frequent and more intense,” said Francesca Dominici, a biostatistician at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health who has studied the effects of extreme heat on human health and was not involved in the new research. “The degree to which children are susceptible to climate change risk, it should be a high priority for scientists to study.”
One reason it is important to study children is because of the possibility of lifelong effects. “The question of which of these diseases that manifest on a hot day are completely curable with proper intervention and which may create chronic disease later in life, is a very open research question,” Dr. Dominici said.
Dr. Dominici added that this research could make clinicians and parents more aware of the range of disorders that affect children during higher temperatures. “If we know what types of diseases might be exacerbated on these days in kids, we can either prevent these diseases or when kids come into the E.D. clinicians are knowledgeable about what’s happening.”
Dr. Bernstein said the research underscored the inequities in pediatric health care. For instance, though a quarter of all bacterial intestinal infections were attributed to heat, those rates were substantially higher for nonwhite children and those who rely upon public health insurance like Medicaid. The data, which did not include pediatric visits to community hospitals or primary care appointments, reiterated that “children without good access to care are more likely to use an emergency department,” he said.
“It’s one thing when we see these inequities laid bare in people at the end of life,” Dr. Bernstein said. But for a child, “we essentially put them on a different course for the rest of their life.”