Status:
Active
Health advisory:
200001
Date Issued:
24 Jan 2020 - (update to Advisory issued 3 January 2020)
Issued by:
Dr Brett Sutton, Chief Health Officer, Victoria
Issued to:
Health professionals

Key messages

  • Bushfires continue to burn, impacting communities across the state.
  • The situation is rapidly changing so it is important to keep checking VicEmergency for updates.
  • As the fires continue to burn, air quality across the state will remain a concern, The EPA AirWatch site provides up to date air quality reports. 
  • When air quality is at hazardous levels due to the smoke and this continues for several consecutive days, at-risk groups can experience an increase in health effects associated with respiratory and other conditions. These groups should consider temporarily relocating outside the smoke-affected area where possible and safe to do so.
  • If people are unable to leave heavily smoke-affected areas, they should stay indoors as much as possible, close windows and doors and reduce activity.
  • Face masks should not be a substitute for avoiding smoke exposure and can provide false reassurance. Ensure that anyone using a face mask (P2 or N95) understands the need to follow all advice regarding reducing exposure to smoke.
  • People in a bushfire-affected area can have contaminated private drinking water, i.e. rainwater tank water. Bottled water should be used if there are concerns about the quality of the drinking water.
  • As rain has also fallen in parts of the state, mosquitos may increase in number. When outdoors people should wear loose fitting clothing and use mosquito repellent containing DEET or picaridin to protect themselves against mosquito bites.
  • Fires of this significance can cause extreme stress so encourage self-care and use of support services for community and emergency responders.
 

What is the issue?

Significant bushfires continue to burn across Victoria, impacting communities. While a period of milder weather suppressed the immediate fire danger, people are starting to return home and should be aware of potential hazards after a bushfire. In addition to smoke, other hazards include contaminated environments, water and spoiled food in fridges and freezers which can increase the risk of gastroenteritis.

Previously dry mosquito breeding sites have now seen rainfall. Mosquito numbers are expected to increase. Mosquitoes can carry diseases such as Ross River Virus, and people should take necessary precautions to prevent mosquito bites.

Smoke levels will fluctuate depending upon fire activity and the prevailing weather conditions.

This situation is changing rapidly so health professionals are urged to remain vigilant and aware of announcements that may impact them and the care of their patients.

It is not recommended that community member attempt to catch injured wildlife due to the risk of further injury.

If they find an injured native animal they should call DELWP on 136 186 for details of wildlife carers or check their website for local wildlife shelters and carers.

Importantly, due to the risk of Australian bat lyssavirus, community members should never attempt to handle a bat.

Who is at risk?

Bushfire smoke can affect anyone but particularly people over 65, children 14 years and younger, pregnant women and those with existing heart or lung conditions, including asthma. Risks from contaminated surface water, contaminated private drinking water and spoiled food will also have a greater impact on the elderly, young children and pregnant women.

People working outside, especially during dusk should protect themselves from mosquito bites and follow the advice on the Beat the Bite page on the Better Health Channel website.

Use an effective mosquito repellent containing picaridin or DEET on all exposed skin.

Symptoms

Hazardous air quality can lead to:

  • Serious aggravation of health effects in people over 65, children 14 years and younger, pregnant women and those with existing heart or lung conditions and diabetes,
  • Serious increase in respiratory and other effects in everyone else and many people might have symptoms such as cough, wheeze or shortness of breath.

Other potential health impacts following bushfires include:

  • Gastrointestinal illness from consuming contaminated food and water, leading to nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal pain.
  • Zoonotic diseases from contact with injured or dead animals leading to fever, headache, lethargy, cough or pneumonia.
  • Injuries from hazards around fire-affected properties.
  • Mental health impacts.
  • Arbovirus illness from mosquito bites such as Ross River and Barmah Forest Virus can cause symptoms such as joint pain and a rash.

Recommendations

  • Check VicEmergency to be aware of the current fire risk in your area and follow all advice provided. Relief and recovery information is also available to help people after the fires.
  • You can check the EPA Victoria AirWatch website to view air quality across the state.
  • When air quality is hazardous, everyone including children should avoid smoke by staying indoors as much as possible and keeping activity levels low, and where possible, taking a break in air-conditioned buildings.
  • Keep indoor air as clean as possible by not smoking, lighting candles or vacuuming and turn air conditioning units onto recirculate if they have this function.
  • Ventilate your home when outdoor air quality improves.
  • Ensure those with asthma have asthma management plans, medication on hand and that they are activating plans based on symptoms and exposure.
  • Face masks should not be a substitute for avoiding smoke exposure.
    • ‘P2’ masks (also known as ‘N95’ masks) can help protect against particulate matter in smoke but will only do so if fitted properly.
    • Face masks have not been designed specifically for children and are difficult to fit properly and maintain in place, which is necessary for them to be effective.
    • Face masks have been prioritised for distribution to people in fire-affected areas, including those with heart or lung conditions, people over 65, pregnant women, people whose only option is to work outside in smoke or people returning to their properties in burnt out areas.
    • Face masks are not being provided to the general community. They have been distributed to areas initially declared in the State of Disaster, in line with the national consensus statement on facemasks. Those most affected by hazardous air quality levels daily are being prioritised.
    • Discuss the use of masks with patients who have an existing heart or lung condition.
    • A fact sheet about how to use P2/N95 face masks is available on the department’s website.
  • Be alert to infections that can spread through contact with contaminated food, water and the environment such as salmonella, campylobacter infections and other pathogens. Viral pathogens such as norovirus and influenza will spread easily in areas where people are grouping together, such as shelters, or where access to good hygiene facilities is limited. Chlorine-based (sodium hypochlorite) sanitisers/disinfectants (e.g. plain, unscented household bleach) should be used in outbreak situations, as other sanitisers have very little effect on destroying viruses such as norovirus.
  • Encourage good hand hygiene and food safety practices for all people in bushfire affected areas, particularly where disruption to power supplies make it difficult to store food at appropriate temperatures.
  • Private drinking water in fire-affected areas could be contaminated from debris, ash, dead animals, aerial fire retardants and water-bombing. If the water tastes, looks or smells unusual, it should not be drunk or used for food preparation, brushing teeth or give to animals (pets or livestock). Bottled water should be used if there are concerns about the quality of the drinking water.
  • Follow the advice on Beat the Bite website on what people can do to protect themselves from mosquito bites including wearing loose fitting clothing, wearing insect repellent containing DEET or picaridin and remove any stagnant water around their property.

More information

Relief and recovery information

Bushfire warnings, relief and recovery

AirWatch / Air quality monitoring

Smoke and your health

Face masks (fitting instructions) - see 'After a fire: using your personal protective kit'

Private drinking water supplies 

Food safety during power outages

Red Cross resources

Contacts

For information related to disease outbreaks: DHHS Communicable Disease Prevention and Control section on 1300 651 160 (24 hours).

For food safety issues: DHHS Food Safety Unit on 1300 364 352.

For issues related to environmental public health: DHHS Environmental Health on 1300 761 874.

Air quality and smoke: Environment Protection Authority on 1300 372 842.