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Heatwaves, spread of infectious diseases due to climate change growing health threats to Europeans

News Published 09 Nov 2022 Last modified 09 Nov 2022
3 min read
Photo: © Florian Wehde on Unsplash
Unprecedented heatwaves — as seen this year — are the greatest direct climate-related health threat to Europe’s population. Heatwaves already account for numerous deaths and illnesses. This burden is set to increase without more climate change adaptation and mitigation measures. Heat-health action plans, urban greening, better building design and adjusting working times can contribute to better protect the most vulnerable groups in society, according to a European Environment Agency (EEA) report published today.

While the need to address the impacts of climate change on human health is increasingly recognised, the time is now to move from planning to action and to improve awareness among public health and healthcare practitioners to make Europe’s population more resilient, according to the EEA reportClimate change as a threat to health and well-being in Europe: focus on heat and infectious diseases.’

The EEA report focuses on the impact high temperatures are having on the population, which leads to the largest number of fatalities associated with natural hazards in Europe. Due to climate change, these fatalities are projected to increase substantially unless adaptation measures are taken. Climate-sensitive infectious diseases — another emerging threat — are projected to further spread northwards and cause a higher disease burden in Europe. The report draws on knowledge developed for the European Climate and Health Observatory, which provides access to a wide range of relevant data, tools, publications and other resources informing about climate change impacts for human health.

Action to protect vulnerable groups to heatwaves

Increasingly frequent, long and intense heatwaves in combination with an ageing population and growing urbanisation mean that more vulnerable populations are exposed to high temperatures, particularly in southern and central Europe. The location of many schools and hospitals in areas experiencing the urban heat island effect, further exacerbating high temperatures, calls for urgent adaptation of those facilities. The rise in temperatures also affect occupational health and safety, resulting in an average annual loss of 16 hours per worker in highly exposed sectors, with the largest losses in southern Europe.

Reducing the health impacts of heat requires implementing a wide range of solutions, including effective heat health action plans, creating more green and shaded areas in cities, appropriate building design and construction, and adjusting working times and conditions so people are less exposed. 

Climate conditions more welcoming to infectious diseases

Changing climate conditions are becoming more suitable for the emergence and transmission of climate-sensitive infectious diseases like malaria, dengue fever or West Nile fever, also expanding the risk of transmission to previously unaffected areas of Europe, like northern regions. The projected lengthening of the transmission season and wider distribution of mosquito species that act as carriers for malaria and dengue, combined with the growing number of travel-imported disease cases, increases the likelihood of local outbreaks.

People working in agriculture, forestry, or emergency services may be at higher risk of catching one of these diseases, while the elderly, young children and those with compromised immune systems may suffer more if they catch a disease.

Warming sea waters are also increasingly suitable for the dangerous Vibrio bacteria found in fish and shellfish, in particular along the Baltic Sea coastline. Exposure to the bacteria can cause serious illness. Effective monitoring of species that carry or transmit these diseases and disease surveillance would help the development of early warnings and better targeted control of carrier species or vaccination.

Prevention, coordination is crucial

Monitoring and surveillance of climate-related threats is an effective measure and the most frequently mentioned in national health or climate adaptation strategies. It is essential to develop early warnings: swift, well-organised and effective actions as part of heat health action plans and providing appropriate information to the public can reduce the risk of disease transmission.

At the local level, the engagement of health and social care providers with climate change adaptation planning remains low across Europe. Adapting to the existing and emerging health threats arising from climate change requires better preparedness of the health sector through increasing awareness, improving knowledge and widening engagement of public health and healthcare professionals, the EEA report says. Improving the resilience of healthcare facilities to extreme weather and ensuring that health systems have the capacity to respond to increased demand for patient care or diagnostics will also help.

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