Climate change and health specialists warn of the danger that global warming represents for public health in Europe, as higher temperatures contribute to the spread of rare diseases in the region and that can be fatal.
Last summer, Europe had to cope with high temperatures, droughts and terrible storms, in addition to suffering from the heat and forest fires caused by the extreme dryness of the forests.
There was also an increase in West Nile virus cases, which killed 71 people as of earlier this month, and the spread of dangerous vibrio bacteria in an exceptionally warm Baltic Sea.
West Nile virus is an infection caused by a mosquito that can lead to neurological problems and even death. Several species of vibrio bacteria cause vibriosis, which can lead to deadly skin infections or gastrointestinal problems.
There were also alerts because global warming increased the risk of tick-borne diseases and the geographic spread of mosquito vectors, causing diseases such as dengue, chikungunya and Zika.
Specialists note that climate change is only one of the factors that affect the spread of tropical diseases in Europe, others may be travel, unplanned urbanization, although it does coincide that changes in temperature, rainfall and humidity facilitate the spread and the survival of mosquitoes, among other vectors, and consequently of infections.
Jan Semenza, Director of Evaluation of the Scientific Section of the European Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told IPS: “The warming of the Baltic Sea is clearly related to climate change and the increase in sea surface temperatures. it is related to (the increase) of the vibrio bacteria ”.
"Climate change projections for sea surface temperature indicate a marked upward trend in the summer months and an increased relative risk of these infections in the coming decades," he added.
Anne Stauffer, Strategy Director of the non-governmental Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), told IPS: “In terms of public awareness, this summer's heat wave made people really see that the climate change occurs in Europe and we must face its threats ”.
"Before, people only thought about the impact in Africa and other places, not in Europe, but now they see that this continent is also affected," he observed.
However, there is a lack of awareness of the impact of climate change on health. Some tropical disease specialists agree that in some countries, people are even unaware of certain diseases in Europe.
"It probably doesn't occur to many Brits to think about West Nile virus when they go to Romania," observed Rachel Lowe, an associate professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, when asked by IPS.
In fact, many tropical diseases have been in Europe for many years, but confined to southern latitudes, while ticks, some of which can cause Lyme disease (with symptoms such as flu and rashes) and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), are present in many parts of the continent.
In fact, this year, there was an increase in encephalitis in central and southern Europe.
Cases of the West Nile virus, which have been reported for years in Europe, increased markedly and appeared earlier than usual, which was attributed to the high temperatures recorded earlier in the season.
The spread of tick-borne diseases in recent years towards more northern latitudes and at higher altitudes was also documented.
"The increase in temperature in Europe may allow the arrival of tropical and semi-tropical vector species, which allow the transmission of diseases in areas where low temperatures had prevented it," explained a spokesman for the World Health Organization (WHO) .
The WHO office in Europe has focused attention in recent years on what it calls “the emergence of the vector-borne disease challenge”.
It even created a regional framework for mosquito surveillance and control, and recommended a mix of actions, such as political commitment accompanied by financial resources, as well as community participation for personal protection against insect bites and activities for control. of vectors.
The WHO considers that “due to globalization, the increase in the volume and pace of travel, trade and climate variability, diseases caused by vectors can spread to new areas, affecting new populations that had never been exposed to it. they".
"In these areas, the lack of awareness of diseases such as West Nile virus, dengue or chikungunya among health professionals, both human and animal, can be a challenge for early detection," he warns.
“People have to be more aware (of tropical diseases in Europe). They are more aware of infectious diseases, in general, but probably not so much of the fact that there are certain infectious diseases (on the continent), ”which there weren't before, Lowe noted.
But not everything is greater awareness. The probabilities of containing, for example, an outbreak caused by a mosquito, will depend on numerous factors, such as "monitoring the spread and control of the mosquito," he said.
The WHO noted the need to inform people for their own protection, and while authorities must ensure that mosquito breeding sites are removed, doctors must be regularly trained to recognize diseases that were not common in Europe.
But there are other specialists who argue that instead of having to deal with disease outbreaks, governments should work to stop climate change and prevent them from appearing.
"There is still a lot that is not known regarding climate change health issues, and they do not know how they can evolve," Stauffer observed.
"But the lesson of the (boreal) summer is that we need to redouble our efforts to tackle climate change, not only adapt health care to deal with a warmer climate, but also act to reduce emissions (pollutants)," he pointed.
"We need to think about preventing health problems by addressing the causes of climate change itself," he added.
Translation: Veronica Firm