New Zealand – The Chief Coroner is warning New Zealanders with multiple sclerosis to take care in the heat after a Christchurch woman died after overheating on Wednesday.

The woman, in her early 60s, died from hyperthermia.  People living with multiple sclerosis can struggle to control the temperature of their body in the heat or cold.

“Following this death, I feel it is important to remind people of the dangers of overheating due to the high temperatures expected in the coming days and to take all necessary precautions,” Judge Deborah Marshall said.
The temperature hit 32 degrees Celsius (89.6 fahrenheit) in Christchurch that day, while the mercury has continued to soar past that mark in many parts of the country.

Niwa reported the North Canterbury town of Waiau reached 37C on Thursday, the warmest temperature recorded in New Zealand in seven years. Hanmer Forest reached 36.2C.

Interior parts of Otago and Canterbury were expected to be particularly hot next week, with warm air coming from Australia pushing temperatures up.  Fire Emergency New Zealand also warned New Zealanders to take care, both when lighting fires, and when out in the hot conditions.

Photo Credit AAP

Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system that can affect movement, sensation and body functions. People can contact their regional multiple sclerosis society if they needed more information and support, Marshall said.

The Multiple Sclerosis Trust website said even a small change in the temperature could cause a “build up of fatigue, blurred vision, loss of balance or worsening of cognitive symptoms such as concentration or memory”.

Neil Woodhams, vice president of the Multiple Sclerosis Society of New Zealand, said anyone with MS is generally well aware of the dangers of heat.

“People with MS suffer from high heat to a greater extent than the normal population,” he said. “It tends to make their limbs less able to work, and it increases fatigue.”

Those with MS are also less able to regulate their own body temperature. The society has tips to deal with the heat on its website.

“It’s all of the normal things people ought to do to keep cool, but it’s just more important that people with multiple sclerosis do it – having cold drinks, ice packs, staying in the shade, using air conditioning if you’ve got it,” he said.

“It’s particularly important that people with multiple sclerosis take the usual steps to keep as cool as possible over the next few days because there’s a pattern of very high temperatures coming up.”

Having regular cold drinks, putting bags of frozen vegetables wrapped in a tea towel around the neck, sucking on an ice cube and eating frozen snacks could help alleviate some of the symptoms, the website said. Other cooling techniques included using hand or electric fans, spraying the face and wrists with a plant mister, sipping iced water while eating, and taking baths and showers in tepid water.

Canterbury medical officer of health Dr Alistair Humphrey said older people, children and those with underlying medical conditions were most at risk of heat stress including cramps, exhaustion, heat rash, or heat stroke.

“It’s especially important to stay out of the sun, avoid extreme physical exertion and ensure that babies, children, and elderly people and pets are not left alone in stationary cars.”

Extreme heat could affect blood pressure and hydration, Humphrey said. He urged people to seek medical help if they felt dizzy, weak or had intense thirst or a headache.

“Good hydration is key, try to consume at least two litres of water a day and avoid drinking alcohol in the hot weather as it speeds up dehydration.”

As well as being sun smart outdoors, people were advised to keep their houses cool by opening windows, closing curtains to keep the sun out and consider using the cool cycle on heat pumps.

A Canterbury District Health Board spokeswoman said Emergency Department clinicians had not noticed a spike in heat-related admissions, but had treated some elderly patients suffering from heat stress recently.

Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) also issued a public alert on Friday reminding people to stay hydrated and in the shade if possible.

Acting national rural operational manager Tim Mitchell said it was crucial people were extra vigilant of their health and fire risks, especially in “tinder dry” areas such as Wanaka where the mercury was tipped to hit 33C on Saturday and climb to 34C by Monday. The fire danger was going to be extreme for Southland, Otago and eastern parts of the South Island in particular, Mitchell said.

“Medical calls are now a big part of what Fire and Emergency do. We want people to look after themselves in this hot weather. It’s important people stay hydrated, they stay in the shade if they can, and take breaks if they’re travelling.”

FENZ attended nearly 11,700 medical emergencies in the year to June 2017.

“Often with warmer temperatures people get really tired and fatigued quite easily, so if you’re driving make sure you take rest breaks and take care of yourself.”