Effects of heat: ISGlobal research reveals crucial health impacts

Recent studies show the hottest summer on record, the influence of climate on the spread of infectious diseases, and how humidity conflates with temperature to increase health risk.

The temperature is gradually rising, with overwhelming consequences for human health, as demonstrated by recent studies from ISGlobal. Image by Luis Graterol via Unsplash.

The Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) has shed light on the devastating impacts of increasing heat due to climate change, through a series of recent research studies.

A deadly summer

In the summer of 2022, Europe experienced the most intense heat ever recorded, marked by a series of heat waves that set records for temperature, drought, and forest fires. A study by ISGlobal and the French National Institute for Research in Health and Medicine (Inserm), published in Nature Medicine, estimated that there were 61,672 heat-attributable deaths between May and September of that year. The analysis was based on temperature and mortality data in 823 regions in 35 European countries. It found that Italy, Spain and Germany had the highest number of heat-attributable deaths, and heat-related mortality rates were highest in Mediterranean nations such as Italy, Greece and Spain, as well as Portugal. In addition, the study highlights a significant difference in mortality rates by gender, with 63% more women than men affected.

“These exceptional summers have highlighted the lack of prevention plans and the fragility of health systems to cope with climate-related emergencies”
Joan Ballester Claramunt (ISGlobal)

The spread of diseases

In another research study led by ISGlobal and published in the journal PNAS, a research team has unraveled how climate influences the spread of diseases in the Amazon region. They show that polycystic echinococcosis, a potentially fatal zoonotic disease, is influenced by regional climate changes. This disease, caused by an intestinal worm, shows outbreaks related to regional climate changes and extreme weather events, which affects the spread of the parasite to humans.

The researchers compiled data on animal and human infections as well as hunting habits in the Amazon region to understand the spatial distribution of the disease and how climate influences it. The findings have implications for understanding other hunting-related zoonotic diseases in the context of global warming.

“Understanding the role of climate in the emergence and spread of these zoonoses is increasingly important, given the current global warming scenario”
Xavier Rodó (ISGlobal)

A better calculation of heat wave risk

In the context of increasing extreme heat waves due to climate change, researchers from ISGlobal and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) emphasized the need to communicate risks more effectively. According to an article in npj Climate and Atmospheric Science, relying only on predicted maximum temperatures to communicate dangerous heat conditions may not adequately reflect the true health risks. The team advocates the use of heat stress indices that consider humidity and other meteorological factors to better communicate the effects of extreme heat stress. Thus, the research team presented a heat index calculator, developed with UC Berkeley, that allows people to estimate indoor risk during heat waves and improve awareness of factors such as humidity in risk assessment.

“The same ambient temperature of 35 °C can be uncomfortable at low humidity, but dangerous to human health at high humidity, even for a short period of time”

Taken together, these studies not only unravel the effects of heat on various facets of public health, but also underscore the importance of proactive action to counteract the potentially devastating impacts of rising temperatures.

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