Heat-related deaths are on the rise in Europe as the effects of climate crisis take hold

Experts say governments across Europe need to make sure their healthcare systems and infrastructures are adapting to cope with drastic climatic change.'

Scientists are urging European governments to take action as climate change takes hold, increasing heat-related deaths across the continent.

Europe is the fastest-warming continent with temperatures rising roughly twice the global average, according to recently published reports from the World Meteorological Organization and the EU's climate agency Copernicus.

A group of public health experts and statisticians from institutions across Europe have created models to analyse how temperature extremes can change the risk of mortality based on the effects of climate change over the past two decades.

Image courtesy: Euronews

Heat-related deaths are estimated to have risen across most of Europe, according to the recently published Lancet Countdown report led by the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre in Spain.

"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 are health facilities available to help prevent heat-related deaths," said Rachel Lowe, the Director of Lancet Countdown in Europe.

The report says deaths on average have increased by 17 for every 100,000 people living in the region between 2013 and 2022 compared with the previous ten-year period from 2003 to 2012.

"In the last few decades, we've seen unprecedented temperatures, record-breaking temperatures, prolonged heatwaves 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," said Lowe.

Climate change leading to food insecurity and mosquito-borne illness

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

Poor harvests across Europe mean food insecurity for people who are less able to afford a healthy diet.

Heat-related mortality is a particular problem given Europe’s ageing population as well, Lowe says.

We're seeing increases in the suitability for this [dengue, zika and chikungunya-carrying] mosquito in large parts of Europe particularly in southern Europe, but, spreading further north. Rachel Lowe Director, Lancet Countdown in Europe.

"Elderly populations who may not have access to cooling systems who are exposed to extreme heat within the home, who may not be able to take measures to protect themselves and hydrate themselves can also be a risk. It also depends on many other co-morbidities, underlying risk factors, for example," she added.

While Southern Europe bears the greatest burden of poor health from heat stresses, experts warn the problems are also creeping northward.

"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," said Lowe.

"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,” Lowe.

In the Lancet report, researchers say 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 that could become established.

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," Lowe said.

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