| 23 April 2024, Tuesday |

Heatwave claims 61,000 lives in Europe’s record-breaking summer, women at double risk

In 2022, Europe experienced an intense summer characterized by unyielding heatwaves, severe droughts, and destructive forest fires, which had a firm grip on the continent.

Fresh data provided by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) indicates that a staggering number of over 61,000 individuals lost their lives in Europe as a result of the extreme temperatures during that year. Notably, women faced a significantly higher risk, with more than double the likelihood of succumbing to the heat compared to men.
The figures, released by researchers and published in the journal Nature Medicine, highlighted the urgent need for more effective measures to combat the escalating threat of rising temperatures.

The report from ISGlobal sounded the alarm bells, warning that Europe, currently expe-riencing the highest warming globally, could witness a staggering 68,000 premature, heat-related deaths every summer by the end of the decade unless swift action is taken.

Even more concerning is the projection that by 2040, the continent could witness nearly 100,000 deaths annually due to exposure to extreme heat.

Extreme heat is dangerous for human health because it worsens every medical condition and can cause heat stroke in vulnerable populations like children, the elderly and those who do physical work outside.

Europe experienced the hottest summer on record for the second consecutive year in 2022, according to the EU’s Earth observation agency Copernicus.

The ISGlobal study, conducted in collaboration with the French National Institute of Health (Inserm), delved into temperature and mortality data from 2015 to 2022, cover-ing 823 regions in 35 European countries with a combined population of over 543 mil-ion.

This analysis helped the team formulate epidemiological models and estimate temperature-attributable death rates for each region and week of the summer season.

However, the summer of 2022 proved to be an unprecedented and unrelenting onslaught of scorching heat.

The analysis revealed 61,672 heat-attributable deaths between May 30 and September 4, 2022.
Startlingly, above-average temperatures persisted throughout the entire summer period.

The deadliest period, from July 11 to August 14, accounted for 38,881 heat-related deaths. Within that period, a pan-European heatwave struck between July 18 and 24, caused 11,637 fatalities.

Among the hardest-hit countries, Italy suffered the highest number of heat-related deaths last summer, with a toll of 18,010 lives lost.

Spain and Germany followed closely, with 11,324 and 8,173 deaths, respectively.

The United Kingdom also faced a grim reality, with an estimated 3,469 deaths attributed to the heatwave of 2022. The data further revealed that Italy had the highest heat-related mortality rate, with 295 deaths per one million residents, followed by Greece (280), Spain (237), and Portugal (211).

The European average stood at 114 deaths per one million people.

When examining temperature anomalies, France experienced the most alarming devia-tion, with temperatures soaring 2.43°C above the average values for the period between 1991 and 2020.

Switzerland (+2.30°C), Italy (+2.28°C), Hungary (+2.13°C), and Spain (+2.11°C) were also significantly impacted by the scorching heat.

Women at risk
The study also shed light on the vulnerability of specific demographic groups, highlighting a stark increase in deaths among older age groups, particularly older women.

Among Europeans under 65 years of age, there were 4,822 heat-related deaths, while the figures rose to 9,226 and 36,848 deaths among those aged 65-79 and over 79, respectively.

Most concerning was the revelation that heat-attributable mortality among women exceeded that of men by a staggering 63 percent continent-wide. In countries like Italy and Greece, the number of heat-related deaths among women was double that of men.

The data suggests that approximately 35,406 premature deaths occurred among women, equating to 145 deaths per million, while an estimated 21,667 deaths were recorded among men, amounting to 93 deaths per million.

This vulnerability was particularly pronounced among those over 80 years of age, where the mortality rate for women was 27 percent higher than that of men.

Impact of global warming
Europe finds itself at the forefront of global warming, with temperatures soaring up to 1°C higher than the global average.

The research team’s estimates paint a dire future if proactive measures are not imple-mented promptly. By 2030, the continent could witness an average of over 68,000 prem-ature deaths every summer, a number that could surge to more than 94,000 by 2040.

The sheer magnitude of heat-related deaths experienced last summer is a somber reminder of the worst toll recorded in 2003, when over 70,000 excess deaths were reported.

“The summer of 2003 was an exceptionally rare phenomenon, even when taking into account the anthropogenic warming observed until then,” explains Joan Ballester Claramunt, first author of the study and researcher at ISGlobal, in a statement.

“This exceptional nature highlighted the lack of prevention plans and the fragility of health systems to cope with climate-related emergencies, something that was to some extent addressed in subsequent years.”

However, the temperatures witnessed in 2022 were not exceptional and could have been predicted by examining previous years’ temperature trends, emphasizing the accelerated pace of warming over the last decade, adds Ballester.

Hicham Achebak, a researcher at Inserm and ISGlobal and the study’s last author, high-lights the urgency of the situation: “The fact that more than 61,600 people in Europe died of heat stress in the summer of 2022, even though many countries already had ac-tive prevention plans in place, suggests that the adaptation strategies currently available may still be insufficient.”

Achebak emphasizes the need to urgently reassess and strengthen prevention plans, considering the differences in vulnerability across European countries and regions and the disparities in age and gender that currently mark the impacts of heat.

As heatwaves become more frequent and severe, the report said governments, institutions, and communities must come together to address the growing threat of climate change, protect vulnerable populations, and develop effective strategies to mitigate the devastating impact of extreme heat on human lives.

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