As I write my President’s report for this first issue of the Newsletter for the year, I reflect upon the ravages that have torn Australasia apart during 2019. The toll from natural disasters alone was horrendous.
After years of drought, Australia was a tinderbox waiting to explode. It started in the spring of September 2019, when 50 fires were reported to be burning in the state of Queensland. Later that month more fires ignited in far-flung areas across the country. Come November, every state and territory in Australia was on fire. By December, smoke and ash had drifted across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand, and even across the Pacific Ocean to South America. The scale of the megafires, which raged for five months, was unprecedented, releasing 400 megatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. More than 12 million hectares of land was scorched - larger than the land-mass of Portugal, and an estimated 1.25 billion animals were burned alive – kangaroos and koalas, kookaburras and cockatoos. People were stranded on beaches and rescued by navy ships. More than 2,000 homes were destroyed. Many people lost their livelihoods; 33 lost their lives.
New Zealand also experienced wildfires during 2019. The Pigeon Valley wildfire in Waimea Valley burned for three weeks over an area of 2,000 hectares and saw 2,500 people evacuated from their homes. But it is New Zealand’s central position in the Pacific Basin “Ring of Fire” that makes it so prone to volcano and earthquake activity. New Zealand has some 14,000 earthquakes each year, although only a fraction of them are strong enough to be felt. We all remember the devastating earthquake of 2011 that almost ruined the city of Christchurch, including its beautiful Gothic revival cathedral; some 11,000 homes and buildings were destroyed, the death toll was 185, with thousands more people injured. The volcanic eruption on White Island last year affected all 47 people present on the island at the time, mainly tourists, with 21 deaths and the remaining 26 survivors being critically injured predominantly by severe burns, rocks hurtled from the crater, and inhalation of toxic gases.
What is the role of natural disasters as a cause of acquired brain injury? Impairment occurs not only in cognitive, neurobehavioural and motor-sensory function, but also secondary emotional consequences with anxiety, fear, stress, grief, depression. Hypoxic brain injury and its characteristic features of compromised memory, vision, speech and motor function can occur after snow avalanches, near drownings in floods and tsunami, and inhalation of smoke and toxic fumes from wildfires, together with severe burns that may cause neuroinflammation. Traumatic brain injury is a common consequence of falling debris in earthquakes, volcano eruptions, hurricanes and tornados. Lightning strikes, the bolt from the blue, can have both transient and permanent effects on neurocognitive and motor function. In our clinical practice, we should be aware that natural disasters can have potentially devastating effects not only emotionally, but also on cognition, behaviour, and motor-sensory function.
On a final note, in the December 2019 edition of the Newsletter, I heralded that ASSBI is to undertake an external review – its first in 43 years of operation. The ASSBI Executive is moving forward on planning for this event. At the annual conference to be held in Perth in May, we will be conducting a survey of the membership. The more responses we receive, the better we will be able to plan the review. Do please respond!
My very best wishes to you all and looking forward to seeing you in Perth for the annual conference,
Robyn Tate, President