Heat and Infectious Diseases in European Cities
The EEA report recently published tackles the heat and infectious diseases as a threat and well-being in Europe. The “Climate change as a threat to health and well-being in Europe: focus on heat and infectious diseases” underlines that the severity of the current and projected impacts of climate on health in Europe call for a stepping up of action in both mitigation of and adaptation to climate change.
Climate change poses multiple threats to human health and well-being in Europe. Extreme weather events, such as devastating floods, extensive wildfires, or intense and long-lasting heat waves, that are more likely and more severe due to the changing climate have become part of our reality in recent years. The greatest direct climate-related threat to human health in Europe is heat, and a large number of excess deaths attributable to extremely high temperatures and prolonged heat waves during the summer of 2022 is a case in point.
• Increasingly frequent, long, and intense heatwaves in combination with an aging population and growing urbanization 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.
Despite high average living standards, Europe’s aging society and prevalence of chronic diseases make its population particularly vulnerable to heat. The exposure of vulnerable groups to heat is increasing, driven not only by more frequent and intense heatwaves but also by ongoing urbanization and the associated urban heat island effect, the fact that buildings and cities in most of Europe have not been constructed to protect people from high temperatures, or outdated work practices that ignore the dangers of heat exposure to human health.
Vulnerable socio-economic groups are particularly affected by heat. This high vulnerability, combined with the projected substantial global warming, creates a dire picture of a future with growing numbers of heat-related deaths and ailments, as well as reduced labor productivity, affecting well-being and prosperity across Europe. Climate-sensitive infectious diseases are another type of emerging threat discussed in this report. The increasing suitability of the climate for various pathogens or their vectors may translate into a higher likelihood of disease transmission in larger parts of Europe. The arrival of travelers and goods into Europe from regions where dengue or malaria is endemic, combined with the increasing suitability of climate conditions for the mosquitoes that carry those diseases becoming permanent in parts of Europe, increases the probability of disease outbreaks. The key finding of the report is the marked increase in the scale and geographical extent of heat and infectious diseases that pose a threat to human health. This is corroborated by the trends over past decades and the projections for the future. Another aspect is the regional differences in the presence of threats. The current and projected exposure to heat is highest in southern Europe, resulting in increased mortality rates and negative impacts on labor.
• Increasing temperatures in Europe also affect occupational health and safety, with an average annual loss of 16 hours per worker (compared with the 20th-century baseline) in highly exposed sectors, with the largest losses in southern Europe.
Central and Eastern Europe emerge as having the highest current climatic suitability for the transmission of dengue, malaria, and West Nile virus. The population’s vulnerability to high temperatures is highest in northern and western Europe as a result of high levels of urbanization and high proportions of the elderly in the population. These two regions have also recorded the highest increase in climatic suitability for dengue, malaria, and West Nile virus over the past few decades, which potentially has contributed to the expansion of those diseases to previously unaffected regions. The risk of Vibrio infections is highest around the Baltic Sea coastlines. These regional differences necessitate the development of specific strategies addressing both the established and the emergent climate-related health threats. In addition, the report draws attention to social inequalities as drivers of vulnerability and exposure to climate-related health threats. Most of those at risk from heat are older people or those with pre-existing health conditions; in addition, the health of elderly people and young children can be more seriously affected if they contract an infectious disease. Low-income groups tend to be overrepresented in dense, urban environments and poor-quality housing prone to overheating. People on the lowest incomes tend to work in manual jobs that are often performed in hot indoor environments or outside, exposing them to high temperatures or infection risk through contact with vectors. Nearly all deaths associated with high temperatures are preventable in the European context. Prevention of and better preparation for outbreaks of climate-sensitive infectious diseases can lessen the health implications. Therefore, the report also looks at measures to reduce the health impacts of heat and infectious diseases in Europe.
• Higher temperatures increase the risk of West Nile fever outbreaks in central, eastern, and southern Europe and expand the risk of transmission to previously unaffected areas of northern and western Europe.
The 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-organized, and effective actions as part of heat health action plans and providing appropriate information to the public can reduce the risk of disease transmission. The adaptation measures planned by the EEA member and collaborating countries emphasize the need to raise awareness of the health threats associated with the changing climate among the population (particularly vulnerable and exposed groups in terms of both working and living conditions) but also among public health and healthcare professionals.
The inclusion of the topic of climate change in medical schools’ curricula and the training of healthcare workers is key. Furthermore, improving the resilience of healthcare facilities across Europe is necessary for both the direct impacts of heat (especially given the high proportion of hospitals in areas experiencing the urban heat island effect) and the pressure on their capacity to deliver patient care during heatwaves or diagnostics during outbreaks of climate-sensitive infectious diseases. However, involving actors beyond the health sector when planning responses to climate-related threats is also essential. Preventing the negative impacts of heat on health can be achieved by climate-proofing buildings to ensure thermal comfort during heat waves or by integrating green spaces into urban planning and redevelopment.
• The warming sea waters are increasingly suitable for the dangerous Vibrio bacteria, particularly along the Baltic Sea coastlines.
Thus, addressing the complex problem of climate change impacts on human health requires a systemic approach to problems and a collaborative way of planning and implementing measures that involve all levels of governance. The EU, while having limited competencies in the area of health, can support Member States by facilitating knowledge development and sharing through research programs, including the EU Mission for adaptation to climate change, and through specific initiatives such as the European Climate and Health Observatory or the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority. Furthermore, regulatory proposals such as that on serious cross-border threats to health can strengthen the role of the EU in developing early warnings and addressing the threats associated with climate change.
Changing work schedules and applying heat-aware working conditions and facilities can reduce heat stress at work, especially for outdoor workers. To successfully plan and implement such measures needs cross-disciplinary collaboration between the health sector and the built environment, planning, or employment sectors. The recent recognition of the climate-related threats to human health and the call for action in political fora such as the G7, in the EU policy framework, or by professional associations in the sphere of public health can help to push the subject up the political agenda of the EEA member countries. This occurs predominantly at the national level, where monitoring and surveillance actions are decided, early warnings may be activated and decisions are made about the roll-out of vaccination programs. Nonetheless, the local implementation of actions — such as information and check-up services for the elderly during heat waves, targeted urban greening activities, or raising awareness of the threat of disease outbreaks — is key to the successful reduction of health threats associated with heat or climate-sensitive infectious diseases.
The full report can be found here: