According to the WHO, heat waves around the world caused at least 166,000 deaths between 1998 and 2017. More than 70,000 people died in Europe alone during a single summer, in 2003. And with climate change continuing to increase summer averages and the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, the problem is set to become ever more tangible. in the next years.
However, quantifying the risks we run is not easy, because the estimates on the increase in mortality linked to extreme temperatures are very variable, and each country in this sense makes its own story.
In America, new research published in Jama Network Open estimated the impact of extreme heat on mortality in the decade between 2008 and 2017, concluding that each day of intense heat in the summer months causes 0.07 more deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. Reported to the entire American population, we are talking about 1,373 deaths per year caused by heat waves in the analyzed period.
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In 2021, more than 2,000 deaths among the over 65s in Italy
However, data of this kind do not tell us much about the situation in our country. In 2021, what was the hottest summer in Europe in the last 20 years, the daily mortality surveillance system of the Ministry of Health reported a total of 2,239 deaths among the over 65s compared to the average of the previous period in 33 sentinel cities used for surveys.
The highest numbers in the South
The excesses of mortality, however, were not uniform, but were concentrated in some southern cities, such as Bari (+ 46%), Campobasso (+ 30%) and Catania (+ 27%). The effects of heat on health in fact vary according to many factors, such as the climate and the intensity of the single extreme event, the socio-demographic characteristics of the population at risk residing in a city in the area. Even in a small country like Italy, the health impact of heat waves varies greatly from region to region, and from city to city.
Who risks the most
“The risk thresholds are very variable, between the different cities, both based on the characteristics of the population and during the summer season as we adapt to the heat”, he explains. Francesca de ‘Donato director of the Department of Epidemiology of the Regional Health System of Lazio – ASL Roma 1. “What we can say is that being exposed to high temperatures has an impact on health, which during heat waves and on alert days can lead to an increase in mortality ranging from 20 to 50 percent, especially in the categories at greatest risk “.
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Numbers destined to grow
In the future, therefore, heat-related deaths are inevitably destined to increase. Not only because average temperatures and frequency of heat waves will rise, but also because of population aging, which will increase the size of the susceptible population. Risk factors include old age, having one or more chronic diseases associated with an adverse effect during heat waves, unfavorable socio-economic conditions and social isolation.
However, the national plan for the prevention of heat waves of the Ministry of Health, which Italy already adopted in 2004, should contribute, at least in part, to counterbalance the effects of the increase in temperatures. “The Italian plan has not rivals in Europe, and will certainly help to limit the effects of climate change on mortality linked to heat waves – concludes de ‘Donato – the changing climate, however, puts health at risk in many other ways, and in this sense our country must intensify adaptation and mitigation measures to climate change to promote health more explicitly, as advocated by both the WHO and the European response and resilience plans in the EU NextGeneration and national PNRR funds.