Tackling climate change crucial to EU citizen health

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Global rises in temperature provide new living areas for disease-bearing animals like mosquitoes. The spread of Zika recently is an indicator of how things may develop in the future. [Shutterstock]

Climate change has a notable impact on health and if steps are not taken, more frequent heatwaves and better conditions for diseases will cause more deaths and cost billions of euros, warns EU Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis.

Vytenis Andriukaitis is Lithuania’s European Commissioner, entrusted with the Health and Food Safety portfolio.

Last month, ministers and heads of state from across the world gathered in Marrakesh to discuss one of the biggest challenges of our time. Climate change can often feel like something that is far removed from our reality, because we do not see its impacts at our doorstep – or so we think.

In fact, climate change is known to already impact some coastal areas, low-lying islands, and has changed the daily lives of millions of people forever, even forcing some to migrate.

Though it remains difficult to fully quantify the impact of climate change on Europeans’ health, we have already observed an increase in deaths from excessive heat, flooding and storms. As the population in Europe is ageing, and elderly people are more vulnerable to extreme weather conditions, this problem is expected to become considerably worse.

If no further measures are taken, heatwaves alone will cause 120,000 excess deaths per year in the EU by 2050, with an accompanying economic cost of €150 billion.

Allergies are also becoming more widespread and increasing in intensity as a result of worsening air quality in Europe’s cities.

As the average global temperature increases, Europe is experiencing milder winters than only 20 years ago. This, paired with hot and wet summers provides a new living environment for insects such as ticks or mosquitoes. These insects can then carry diseases, such as dengue and malaria, and spread those to new areas where the climate was not previously suitable to them, such as Europe.

A very recent example of this is the mosquito which spreads the Zika virus: it was traditionally found near the equator in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, but due to the changing climatic conditions, has been spreading through the Americas.

And although to date no cases of locally acquired mosquito-borne Zika transmission have been reported in continental Europe, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) continues to closely monitor the situation as the worry is that the virus could potentially be imported to, and transmitted within the EU.

Children and elderly people are particularly vulnerable to the health impacts of climate change, and may require additional support by our healthcare systems. This will increase pressure on health services, which can undermine their effectiveness and increase costs.

Tackling climate change is considered a key priority in the EU, which has always been a leader in international negotiations, including COP21 in Paris, which led to the first-ever universal, and legally binding global climate change agreement.

We have set ourselves some of the world’s most ambitious climate and energy targets and we are the first region to have passed legislation to ensure they are achieved. The 2013 EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change aims to increase resilience of EU countries to climate impacts and highlights the risk of the effects of climate change and the importance of mainstreaming climate action in other areas of legislation, including health.

The threat of climate change is also recognised within the EU Health Strategy and the EU Health Programme includes among its goals the need to protect people from serious cross-border health threats including those caused by climate change, with a particular focus on protecting Europe’s citizens from the health impacts of weather extremes (i.e. “Euroheat” project), as well as early warning systems to help the health sector prepare for the impacts of climate change (i.e. “Climate trap” project).

Furthermore, the 2013 EU Decision on serious cross-border health threats extended the framework long in place for communicable diseases to all serious cross-border threats to health – including climate change. Covering preparedness planning in case of health emergency, this legislation is improving health security in the EU and protecting citizens from health threats resulting from climate change.

The nature and scale of the impacts of climate change will depend largely on our capacity to adapt to climate change, and on the actions we take to secure our citizens’ health.

While some of the existing measures and systems we have in place might be efficient under current climates and circumstances, they might need to be strengthened or revised for better preparedness.

Leading research suggests that climate change may hit harder than previously expected, and health services need to develop appropriate responses in case the pace of climate change quickens, or the effects turn out worse than predicted.

Initiatives such as the Lancet Countdown launched at the Marrakesh Summit are crucial to helping us develop plans protect our citizens from the worst impacts of climate change, and can inform discussions within the Commission as to what further steps might be taken to reinforce our approach to climate change.

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