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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Northern India endures a heat wave, and a wave of deaths

A resident painting her roof with reflective paint to keep her home cool in Jodhpur, India.

By Alex Travelli and Hari Kumar

An unusually intense heat wave has swept across northern India in the past week, with some hospitals in the state of Uttar Pradesh recording a higher-than-usual number of deaths. Doctors there are convinced there’s a link between the punishing temperatures and the deaths of their patients, but officials are investigating what role the dangerous combination of heat and humidity played in the rise in mortality.

In Ballia District, population about three million, the daily high temperature over the same period has hovered around 43 degrees Celsius (above 109 degrees Fahrenheit), nine degrees hotter than usual, alongside relative humidity as high as 53%. Dozens of deaths were recorded at hospitals there on June 15, 16 and 17.

Dr. Jayant Kumar, the chief medical officer of Ballia District, near the state of Bihar, said that 23 people died in the district last Thursday. The next day, 11 more succumbed. “The number of deaths has been more than normal,” Kumar said.

He told the Press Trust of India, a news agency, that on average, eight people usually die per day. “Most of these are natural deaths,” he told The Times in a phone interview, “most of the dead being elderly people suffering from different ailments like diabetes.”

But Indian government officials have pushed back against linking the deaths too directly to the punishing heat.

Dr. Diwakar Singh, formerly the chief medical superintendent of Ballia District, told reporters on Friday night that 34 people had died of heatstroke at the main hospital under his oversight. The next day, he was reprimanded by the state government for prematurely drawing that conclusion and removed from his position.

The government has since sent a scientific team from the state capital, Lucknow, to investigate the causes.

Singh’s replacement, Dr. S.K. Yadav, took a more cautious line on Sunday, saying, “Elderly patients with comorbidities like hypertension and diabetes are expiring because of heat.”

“Still,” he added in a phone interview, “the death numbers are more than normal.” He agreed with Kumar’s assessment that the excessive heat was to blame for the high death toll, whatever the exact link.

While an extraordinary number of patients were being admitted for heat-related distress, Yadav said, “we are able to provide beds to all the patients, and we have enough doctors and medicines.”

The nightmarish prospect of mass deaths caused by a sudden rise in temperatures has become more urgent in recent years. And the phenomenon in this area of the world may portend a warning beyond India’s borders.

The heat in this part of India has been hovering around the critical “wet-bulb temperature,” the threshold beyond which the human body cannot cool itself to a survivable point by perspiration, defined as 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit), adjusted for 100% humidity. The wet-bulb reading in Ballia on Saturday reached 34.15 degrees Celsius (about 93 degrees Fahrenheit).

It is expected that more older or infirm patients than usual will die in heat waves like this one, which climate change has made more common across India’s historically scorching plains, as in most of the world, scientists say.

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