18 August 2010

Heat probably killed thousands in Moscow

Several thousand Muscovites are thought to have died in July alone from this year's unprecedented heat wave and August could add more fatalities to the grim statistics.

Several thousand Muscovites are thought to have died in July alone from this year's unprecedented heat wave and August could add more fatalities to the grim statistics, a Russian scientist said on Tuesday.

Moscow, a metropolis of over 10 million people, suffered from intense heat since late June, with day temperatures sometimes nearing 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).

The crisis shriveled a third of Russia's grain crop, shaved billions off this year's economic growth and killed at least 54 people in wildfires. The heat subsided on Tuesday.

Citing a report by the Moscow Registry Office, Boris Revich, a senior demography and ecology researcher at Russia's Academy of Sciences, said 5,840 more Muscovites had died in July than in the same month last year.

Revich said he believed the overwhelming majority of these additional deaths had been caused by the fierce heat wave.

"This situation was absolutely easy to forecast," he told a news conference. "The only thing I blame myself for is that my estimate (of deaths) was too low at the start of the heat."

"But we have never had experience estimating such monstrous heat, merely because we had never had such heat before."

The State Statistics Committee (Goskomstat) is due to publish its data on the deaths around Aug. 20, Revich said. Death rate figures for August will be available in September.

Breaking official silence over the adverse affects of the heat and smoke from forest fires which blanketed Moscow since late July, the head of Moscow's health department, Andrei Seltsovsky, said on Aug. 9 that deaths had almost doubled to 700 a day, with heat being the main killer.

"Nature’s grim experiment"

Revich called the data provided by the Moscow Registry Office as "absolutely reliable," adding he believed most of those who had died from heat were elderly people suffering from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

He said that globally, Russia's heat crisis was not a unique phenomenon, highlighting that in 2003 an estimated 45,000-50,000 people had died in a severe heat wave in the European Union.

"But what makes the situation in Moscow and other big cities of central Russia different, is this abnormal heat being coupled with a high level of air pollution as a result of forest fires," Revich said. "Nature set up such a grim experiment on us."

A total of 27,724 fires, including 1,133 at burning peat bogs, have been detected in Russia since July, Emergencies Ministry department chief Yuri Brazhnikov told reporters.

He said the fires had affected a total of 134 villages and towns and destroyed some 2,000 homes. Around 1,100 people have been moved to temporary shelters.

The weather is set to get colder by the weekend and Moscow's air will get cleaner, but it remains unclear how fast the authorities will take steps to be prepared to fight a similar heat wave in the future.

Moscow ambulances, maternity houses and hospitals are not air-conditioned, as well as so-called social centres opened to provide proper shelter from heat to the sick and elderly. Masks and oxygen are in short supply in pharmacies.

"European countries have accumulated vast experience how to act during heat," Revich said. "Regrettably, we are now just on our way to having such a national plan." (Reuters Health/ 18 August 2010)


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