Europeans at increased risk from tropical illnesses due to climate change

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Europeans at increased risk from tropical illnesses due to climate change

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Climate change poses a growing threat to the health of Europeans, with killer heatwaves, disease-spreading floods and tropical illnesses on the rise, a senior EU official has warned.

Health commissioner Stella Kyriakides told the Financial Times in an interview that having co-operated to fight the Covid pandemic in 2020-21, the 27 member states must increase efforts to do so in other areas.

“The effect of climate change on health . . . is really going to be at the top of the political agenda in the years to come,” she said. “It was always there, but I think people are now realising how much bigger this is in terms of the impact that climate change has — on new diseases appearing, on pathogens, on mental health, the stress it’s creating for people, the economic [impact].”

Cyprus, Kyriakides’ home country, is on the front line as mosquitoes and other disease carriers arrive from Asia and Africa. Warmer winter temperatures allow them to survive.

“Diseases coming into Europe have multiplied because the climatic conditions are becoming so different,” she said. “We’re seeing more of them.”

Dengue, Zika and yellow fever are on the rise. The mosquito spreading them established itself in Cyprus in 2022 and will inevitably reach other countries, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has said.

The Aedes albopictus species, a known carrier of chikungunya and dengue, was resident in 13 countries in 2023, it added.

Kyriakides said heatwaves caused more than 60,000 deaths in Europe in 2022 while air pollution led to the premature deaths of up to 300,000 people annually.

Rising temperatures and more flooding help spread pathogens and food-borne diseases.

But the professional psychologist said European health policy was far more comprehensive at the end of her term than when she started. Most power still remains with national capitals but Kyriakides seized on the response to the Covid pandemic to create a “European health union”.

The European Commission procured vaccines on behalf of member states, developed a travel pass for the uninfected and pressured countries to keep borders open and offer hospital beds to neighbours.

It set up the European Health Emergency and Preparedness Response Authority which stockpiles drugs and medical equipment and can buy them rapidly if needed. This body joins the ECDC, which tracks disease outbreaks, and the European Medicines Agency, which approves medicines as safe.

Kyriakides said a recent test of readiness for a new pandemic was the outbreak of monkeypox in 2022.

“We didn’t know how big it would be across the member states. We had the mechanisms in place so that we managed to jointly procure vaccines for member states and start delivering them within three weeks.

“We paid for them [from the EU budget] for the first time. And there was none of this competitiveness between member states of ‘I want my vaccines and I can buy more than you can and shooting prices up’.”

Rather, governments came to Brussels for help.

“This shows a paradigm shift. This shows that member states now see health . . . as having another level of layer of protection for them at the EU.”

She has also increased cancer services with €4bn in funding for vaccination and diagnostic tools across the EU, and said her successor must do the same for mental health.

Medicine shortages are another challenge, as the pandemic exposed how reliant Europe was on imports of key ingredients from India and China. Common treatments such as paracetamol still face sporadic shortages.

The commission has drawn up a list of vital drugs and mooted a Critical Medicines Act that would include mandatory stockpiling and support for domestic production.

“Shortages of medicines across Europe are disrupting treatment plans for chronic illnesses like cancer and diabetes,” according to a report on the Health Union to be unveiled on Wednesday.

Growing bacterial resistance is another issue that needs solving, it adds.

Asked what keeps her awake at night, Kyriakides answered simply: “Health. There’s no business as usual.”

“We do not know what other public health challenges will come but we have put together a health security framework that will enable us to be better prepared.”


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