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Physicians develop innovative approach to combat extreme heat: ‘This has massive ramifications …’

“The scale in which we’re talking about the problem is often too large.”

"The scale in which we're talking about the problem is often too large."

Photo Credit: iStock

Harvard’s Dr. Satchit Balsari has seen conditions in parts of the world that are so hot that children stop going to school because they burn their feet on asphalt when they leave home. 

“And so they just stopped going to school. And unless you’re on the field studying this, it wouldn’t really occur to any of us that school dropouts [are] because it’s too hot to walk back from school,” Balsari said in an interview with PBS. “This has massive ramifications for workplace safety as well.”

Balsari is co-director of Harvard’s CrisisReady project, an initiative to collect as much data as possible about the climate’s impact on human health and develop an effective way to respond. The project includes international health experts, tech companies, nonprofits, and governments. 

It’s an example of how we can better educate ourselves on the planet’s changing climate and find better solutions to deal with the repercussions. 

The schoolchildren story is a tangible example of how humans are suffering from the planet’s rising temperatures, which are up about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880. In this case, it demonstrates how high mercury impacts education. It’s also evidence that can be overlooked when only the data collected by remote sensors and satellites is considered, according to the experts. 

“The scale in which we’re talking about the problem is often too large. So we don’t have that granular, human scale data to understand the impacts of climate change,” Harvard’s Dr. Caroline Buckee, who is working on CrisisReady, said to PBS. 

That’s why the group intends to gather a vast amount of data about human behavior and mobility, using it to build a standardized system of information for governments around the world to improve disaster readiness. The leaders can use it to form better policies, geared to help people on a neighborhood level, be it a cholera outbreak in Mozambique, a pandemic, or a severe heat wave in a remote village, all per a video clip shared by Harvard. 

Buckee and Balsari studied Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico in 2017. Balsari told PBS that the government originally estimated 64 people were killed. But medical experts found it to be a terrible underestimate. 

“The study suggested that the true mortality was closer to about 4,000. They didn’t die on the day of the landfall. They died for months of disruption to other aspects of their lives,” Balsari told PBS. 

Power outages and poor medical care caused suffering to linger, per the report. 

The CrisisReady team expects that better data will help first responders to be more prepared when disasters like Maria strike. Next, it plans to “scale and formalize” the data network, Buckee said in the clip. 

The goal is to go from big data to effective policy in a short time. 

“We won’t get that speed without being able to put tools in the hands of local responders,” Dr. Andrew Schroeder, humanitarian nonprofit Direct Relief vice president of research and analysis, said in the clip. “We won’t get that accuracy without much more sort of well-developed methods and data streams that can enable … local knowledge to occur.”

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