Europe’s killer heat waves are a new norm. The death rates shouldn’t be.

Source(s): Washington Post, the
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By Richard C. Keller, professor in the Department of Medical History and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison


This year’s successive heat waves reveal an ominous pattern, one that looks remarkably like 2003, the deadliest summer in modern European history. That year, short heat waves lasting from a few days to a week struck in June and July. Devastating droughts in some countries exacerbated the effects. At the beginning of August, a system developed over much of western and central Europe and remained in place for two weeks, bringing with it stifling temperatures and ruinous mortality. Across Europe, 70,000 died of excessive heat that summer.

This death rate is shocking because heat deaths are relatively easy to prevent. Just a few hours of air-conditioning per day is enough to allow people to recover, and drinking sufficient fluids is enough to prevent dehydration. In the aftermath of the 2003 disaster, the French government took important steps toward prevention. The state put in place a nationwide alert system to warn of the dangers of high heat and to recommend precautions. Many cities have established cooling centers, and nursing homes are required to provide at least one air-conditioned common room for their residents. Paris developed a telephone response network: those who feel at risk of heat stroke register with the city, and when temperatures soar, social workers call to ensure they are coping. Yet these systems have limits, especially for those most vulnerable. Media alerts don’t reach those without televisions, radios or Internet access, and the telephone systems require self-registration. People with disabilities find it difficult to reach cooling centers. Many homeless shelters are also closed in summer, shutting down an important hub for distributing warnings. Yet the government has done little to mitigate these obstacles, allowing NGOs and charitable organizations that are often insufficiently staffed to meet the needs of those most at risk.

France is on track to repeat the 2003 experience. Peaks of high heat separated by only a few weeks of average temperatures are also striking in the midst of a record drought, with water restrictions in 73 of the country’s 96 departments. Lower water pressures make it more difficult to relieve heat stroke and dehydration, and water restrictions have already had devastating effects for livestock in a country whose agricultural sector is a backbone of the economy.


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