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Intense heat waves killed 61, 672 people in Europe last year

Italy accounted for most of Europe's more than 61,000 deaths related to heat stress between May and September last year, according to a study led by Barcelona Institute for Global Health.

HQ Team

July 11, 2023: Italy accounted for most of Europe’s more than 61,000 deaths related to heat stress between May and September last year, according to a study led by Barcelona Institute for Global Health.

Italy had the highest number of heat-attributable deaths over the entire summer of 2022, with a total of 18,010 deaths, followed by Spain, 11,324, and Germany, 8,173.

In terms of the heat-related mortality rate alone, Italy with 295 deaths per million was followed by Greece 280, Spain, 237, and Portugal, 211. The European average was estimated at 114 deaths per million.

The country with the warmest value was France, with +2.43°C above the average values for the period 1991-2020, followed by Switzerland +2.30°C, Italy+2.28°C, Hungary, +2.13°C, and Spain +2.11°C.

The 2022 summer was characterized by an intense series of heat waves, droughts, and forest fires. Eurostat, the European statistical office, already reported unusually high excess mortality for those dates, until now the fraction of mortality attributable to heat had not been quantified.

61,672 heat-related deaths

The gap was filled by the ISGlobal study, a centre supported by the “la Caixa” Foundation, in collaboration with the French National Institute of Health (Inserm). 

The analysis, published in Nature Medicine, estimates 61,672 heat-attributable deaths between May 30 and September 4 period of 2022.

The research team obtained temperature and mortality data for the period 2015-2022 for 823 regions in 35 European nations, whose total population represents more than 543 million people. 

The data were used to estimate epidemiological models and predict temperature-attributable mortality for each region and week of the summer period.

Records show that temperatures were warmer-than-average during every week of the summer period. The highest temperature anomalies were recorded during the hottest month, from mid-July to mid-August. 

Pan-European heat wave

According to the researchers, this coincidence magnified heat-related mortality, causing 38,881 deaths between 11 July and 14 August. 

Within that period of just over a month, there was an intense pan-European heatwave between 18 and 24 July, to which a total of 11,637 deaths are attributed.

The study included an analysis by age and sex, showing a marked increase in the mortality the older groups, especially women. 

It is estimated that there were 4,822 deaths among those under 65, 9,226 deaths among those between 65 and 79, and 36,848 deaths among those over 79.

In terms of gender analysis, the data show that heat-attributable mortality was 63% higher in women than men, with a total of 35,406 premature deaths, compared to an estimated 21,667 deaths in men.

 This greater vulnerability of women to heat is observed in the population as a whole and, above all, in those above the age of 80 years.

Lack of prevention plans

The highest summer mortality in Europe was registered in 2003, when over 70,000 excess deaths were recorded.

“The summer of 2003 was an exceptionally rare phenomenon, even when taking into account the anthropogenic warming observed until then,” said Joan Ballester Claramunt, first author of the study.

“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,” he said.

The temperatures recorded in the summer of 2022 cannot be considered exceptional, in the sense that they could have been predicted by following the temperature series of previous years, and that they show that warming has accelerated over the last decade,” he said.

Hicham Achebak, the last author of the study, said adaption strategies currently in place may be insufficient.

“The acceleration of warming observed over the last ten years underlines the urgent need to reassess and substantially strengthen prevention plans.

Greatest warming

One should be “paying particular attention to the differences between European countries and regions, as well as the age and gender gaps, which currently mark the differences in vulnerability to heat,” he said.

Europe is the continent experiencing the greatest warming, up to 1°C more than the global average. 

Researchers said, in the absence of an effective adaptive response, the continent will face an average of more than 68,000 premature deaths each summer by 2030 and more than 94,000 in 2040.

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