Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Climate Emergency

A lack of quality statistics is hiding the real heatwave death toll

BMJ 2024; 385 doi: (Published 14 May 2024) Cite this as: BMJ 2024;385:q1052
  1. Disha Shetty, freelance journalist
  1. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Pune, India
  1. dishashetty20{at}

Heatwaves are intensifying but gaps in the data mean that the number of people who have died from rising temperatures is unclear. Disha Shetty reports on why—and why it matters

Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur is hot and humid throughout the year but this April temperatures rose to over 37°C compared with the usual low 30s. The tropical country’s meteorology department published a heatwave warning for 14 areas.1

In India millions of people headed to polling stations during April and May,2 even as temperatures soared up to 44°C in some areas, with heatwaves predicted for many districts.3

Heatwaves, known as silent killers, resulted in 61 000 deaths in Europe in 2022, according to one study.4 In West Africa, Mali has already reported more than 100 heatwave deaths this year.5

Most healthcare systems are not equipped to document heatwave deaths, however. “The largest single source of mortality data should be the civil registration system. But in low and middle income countries, the vast majority of deaths are happening outside of health facilities,” says Philip Setel, a vice president at Vital Strategies, a public …

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