Bushfire Impact Working Group honoured

15 December 2020

Bushfire Impact Working Group awarded the Sidney Sax Medal for outstanding contributions to Australian healthcare.

As smoke engulfed Canberra and many other Australian cities last summer, researchers from across ANU understood they had a major role to play in protecting the physical and mental health of our communities.

Led by the College of Health and Medicine Dean, Professor Russell Gruen, the Bushfire Impact Working Group (BIWG) emerged in this complex environment of acute disaster. Weeks of hazardous air pollution engaged not just academic curiosity, but our community responsibility to better understand the health impacts facing many Australians. For this huge effort, the BIWG has been jointly awarded the prestigious Sidney Sax Medal for outstanding contribution to Australian healthcare, with Patricia Turner, CEO of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO).

The BIWG was initially chaired by Professor Robyn Lucas from the Research School of Population Health, and now by Dr Arnagretta Hunter, from ANU Medical School. The group is made up of academics from across the College of Health and Medicine, and their first task was to ensure the public had access to reliable bushfire smoke health information.

“We quickly recognized an immediate focus was filling the information gap on how to be safe in the bushfire smoke, with communication that was accessible to communities,” says Professor Lucas.

“We worked with ACT Health, Chief Health and Medical Officers, the Federal Department of Health, and importantly the communities to develop and disseminate evidence-based communications.”

At the same time as that huge piece of work was underway, the team developed four broad themes of research to understand further health impacts from the bushfires, and provide direction for interventions to support physical health, mental health, communities and social functioning, and the health system response.

To this end the team has undertaken multiple projects including an early rapid assessment of the impact of prolonged exposure to bushfire smoke; examining lung function after prolonged bushfire smoke exposure; researching the impact on pregnancy; policy advice; participating in the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action Roundtables; submissions to the Senate Finance and Public Administration Inquiry into the bushfires and to the Royal Commission into Natural Disasters; and have called for a National Strategy for Health and Climate Change.

“The group is very much driven by a need to be useful, and to use the skills and knowledge that we have to help our communities get through a really tough period,” says Dr Hunter.

The Bushfire Impact Working Group has demonstrated the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to complex challenges such as those posed by the effects of environmental changes on health and wellbeing. The BIWG is acutely aware that the physical and mental health impacts from the 2019/20 bushfires are still ongoing, and that with a changing climate there will likely be more fires of this scale in the future.

‘Our advocacy work with the bushfire affected communities is really important, making sure they are not forgotten and they have sufficient ongoing engagement and support through the coronavirus pandemic,’ says Dr Hunter.