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Heat related deaths on the rise in Europe

A man and woman use a cloth over their heads to protect themselves from the sun in Manila, Philippines on April 29, 2024.   -  
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Aaron Favila/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved


This latest report on the impact of heat stress on human health is based on models created by public health experts and statisticians from institutions across Europe drawing on the effects of climate change over the past two decades.

The focus is not so much about climate change itself, numerous reports have warned temperatures globally are up.

Most recently the World Meteorological Organisation and the EU's climate agency Copernicus have reported that Europe is the fastest-warming continent and its temperatures are rising at roughly twice the global average.

Today's Lancet Countdown report led by the Barcelona Supercomputing Center in Spain is looking at what this has meant for health.

It says the greatest burden of poor health from heat stresses mainly affect countries in southern Europe, but it also warns that the problems affecting the south of the continent are creeping northwards.

Heat-related deaths are estimated to have risen across most of Europe according to the report.

It says deaths on average have increased by 17 in every 100,000 people living in the region between 2013 and 2022 compared with the previous ten years 2003 to 2012.

"In the last few decades, we've seen, unprecedented, temperatures, record breaking temperatures, prolonged heat waves and this has been linked to an increase in temperature related mortality that would not have been observed if the temperatures had not been changing at the rate they have been doing over the last few decades," explains Rachel Lowe, Director, Lancet Countdown in Europe.

She says: "So we're using statistical approaches to understand how temperature extremes can change the risk of mortality but this is not due only to mortality it also depends on many other factors, such as underlying conditions, age, sex, socioeconomic conditions, the ability to adapt to extreme heat, for example, if there's access to air conditioning, cooling, if there's, health facilities available to help prevent heat related deaths."

According to Lowe, access to health care and being able to afford a good diet come into play along with chronic illnesses in poorer populations.

Poor harvests across Europe are hitting a host of traditional crops. This in turn can also add to food insecurity for people who are less able to afford a healthy diet.

She says another growing consideration for health professionals is the growing potential for insect related diseases made possible by climate change.

"What we're seeing. For example, in the case of leishmaniasis, we're seeing a northward shift of the area of Europe which is now suitable for the transmission of leishmaniasis. We're also seeing particularly in northern Europe increases in the length of the transmission season, suitable for ticks and in the case of mosquito borne disease, particularly the mosquitoes the Aedes . albopictus mosquitos that can transmit dengue, Zika and chikungunya, we're seeing increases in the suitability for this mosquito in large parts of Europe particularly in southern Europe, but, spreading further north," says Lowe.

This research centre in Brazil is searching for ways to tackle the diseases like dengue which could become more common in Europe.

The report says governments across Europe need to ensure their health systems and infrastructures are adapting to cope with the climatic changes, particularly when it comes to diseases which could become established.

Lowe says: "Certainly we're seeing in the last few decades, several outbreaks of diseases like dengue and chikungunya. We've seen outbreaks in France, in Croatia in the Portuguese island of Madeira. In Italy there was a dengue outbreak last year. It's certainly, a threat that is becoming more and more serious, given the more suitable climatic conditions for the vectors."

The report is critical of the efforts made by government on the European continent to address the impacts of climate change to mitigate its effects on its populations.

It says many countries: "remain major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, and are still providing net subsidies for fossil fuels - despite their health harms".

"It's only a matter of time before the climate conditions become more suitable across large parts of Europe and unless action is taken to improve the resilience of European societies to resist local transmission of these diseases, then we could be facing a serious problem," warns Lowe.

The report was published today (12th May) in the Lancet Public Health journal.