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As the Weather Goes, So Goes Your Health

British health officials find flu, heart attack and more influenced by climate changes

THURSDAY, March 21, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Many arthritis sufferers swear they can predict a coming storm by the way their joints ache.

While this type of connection between weather and health has been largely ignored by mainstream science, it has not been lost on health officials in the United Kingdom.

The U.K. Met Office, an agency similar to the National Weather Service, has developed an early warning system that helps hospitals better predict how many patients they will have to treat, based on changes in the weather. The system has already been tested at five locations, and is currently being tested at another 30 hospitals.

"In the pilot phase, one hospital was able to perform an extra 150 operations due to the forecast predicting less emergency workload than usual, allowing extra beds to be used for elective surgery," says the system's chief developer, Dr. William Bird, a general practitioner. "Without the forecast, this would be too risky because of a possible influx of emergency."

The early warning system is a work in progress, Bird says. The current model collects data on temperature, humidity, barometric pressure and predicted precipitation. However, the system doesn't just rely on weather statistics. Information from the surveillance of infectious diseases such as influenza is also entered, as is information from workload surveillance.

When complete, the system will have information from more than 13 million hospital admissions and doctor visits and 12 million weather records from the past six years, Bird says.

Health-care providers should then be able to predict what their coming workload will be up to two weeks in advance. For example, Bird says, there is a strong link between falling temperatures and heart attacks, strokes and respiratory infections. Knowing this in advance, hospital administrators could have extra staff on hand when a cold snap is predicted. They could also cancel elective surgeries because they'll know they're going to need extra beds.

"Weather has a major effect on our health," says Laurence Kalkstein, associate director of the Center for Climatic Research at the University of Delaware. "Extremes in weather are what really gets us."

While Kalkstein says he knows of no system in the United States that could predict a flu outbreak two weeks before it happens, he adds it would be great if someone had figured out how to do that.

There are, however, other warning systems in place for weather situations that affect health and mortality, Kalkstein says. For example, there is an early warning heat system, and when the temperature is going to reach dangerous levels, health departments and weather services are put on alert.

What to Do: To do some of your own weather and health forecasting, check out the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's air quality index, or the Weather Channel's pollen count maps and ultraviolet index.

SOURCES: William Bird, M.D., medical consultant, Health Forecast Unit, Met Office, Berkshire, United Kingdom; Laurence Kalkstein, Ph.D., professor and associate director, Center for Climatic Research, University of Delaware, Newark, Del.
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