Hospitals in India are battling to treat victims of a blistering heatwave that has claimed more than 1700 lives in just over a week – the highest number recorded in two decades.
Hundreds of mainly poor people die at the height of summer every year in India, but this year’s figures are already the highest since 1995, when official data shows 1677 people succumbed to the heat.
In southern Andhra Pradesh – by far the worst-hit state – where top temperatures have reached 47 degrees Celsius, 1334 people have died since May 18, according to The Press Trust of India news agency.
Doctors said they had never seen so many severe cases.
“Our wards are completely full,” said J V Subbarao, medical officer at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Medical Sciences in Andhra Pradesh.
“I have worked as a medical officer in this district for 40 years and I have never seen anything like this, with so many people arriving already dead.”
Subbarao said most of the worst affected were poor and elderly who were simply unaware of the dangers of heat stroke.
Another 340 people have died from the heatwave in neighbouring Telangana state, where temperatures hit 48 degrees over the weekend, compared to 31 such deaths in the whole of last year.
Experts say official figures for heat-related deaths likely underestimate the true number because extreme weather conditions disproportionately affect the poor who are less likely to die in hospitals.
Forecasters said there was little hope of any immediate respite from the temperatures in northern India, which have been aggravated by hot, dry winds.
“We think that these heatwave conditions will take another four to five days to subside,” said Brahma Prakash Yadav, director of the Indian Meteorological Department.