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EU health ministers seek coordinated approach to climate change health threats

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The EU must take concrete actions to address the public health effects and health systems threats of the climate crisis, EU health ministers urged on Thursday (30 November).

Ministers made the call at the EU Health Council, the last meeting under the Spanish presidency, stressing the need for specific bloc-wide measures to address the climate impacts that are already being felt in all European countries.

“It is important for the EU to be prepared through overall coordination and exchange of best practices to take on these challenges, which are not challenges for the future. There are challenges of the present,” said Spanish health minister Mónica García. 

The past few years have seen an uptick in heatwaves across Europe, which in the summer of 2022 resulted in an estimated 62,000 deaths – a number set to increase in the following years.

Other major consequences include wildfires, rising sea levels and increased presence of mosquito-borne diseases rapidly spreading in Europe. 

Malta’s Health Minister, Cristopher Fearne, explained in the meeting that climate change is under health competences and “therefore we need to have a clear position and we need to influence the climate change debate and we cannot expect this to be dealt with by other parts or by other ministries”. 

The changing climate is a health issue, not only because of the direct consequences but also because it affects the capacity and resilience of healthcare systems, he explained.

During the meeting, EU health ministers asked the European Commission and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) to analyse the specific threats and to look at the patterns of vector-borne infections, as warmer temperatures are creating conditions for mosquitoes carrying infections to spread in Europe. 

They stated the need to look at surveillance and preparedness for new cross-border threats and to focus on preparedness and medical countermeasures such as the development of new vaccines, diagnostics and training of professionals. 

“In short, this is a call to bring climate change or the climate crisis onto the European health agenda,” said Fearne. 

Ongoing actions

Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides responded to this call for action explaining that the Commission is already acting on various fronts. 

With this same objective, the European Climate and Health Observatory was set up in 2021. This partnership between the European Commission and the European Environment Agency aims to support the EU in adapting to the impacts of climate change on human health providing access to information and tools and promoting information exchange between stakeholders in different countries.

Kyriakides also explained that the Commission has already tools in place to respond to these threats such as the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA), which is investing €120 million to improve the availability of medical countermeasures for vector-borne diseases. 

“We are investing in their research, development and production to increase not only Europe’s but also global preparedness,” she assured. 

In October 2022, EU institutions adopted the new regulation on serious cross-border threats. 

This text aims to help the EU to better anticipate, react and respond to health threats in a coordinated way, at the EU and national levels. It includes not only infectious but also environmental, foodborne or chemical health threats, taking the One Health approach EU lawmakers are introducing in all health policies. 

This approach is based on the principle that human, animal and environmental health are intrinsically linked and only by making efforts in these three areas simultaneously can One Health be reached. 

“This is not a one-time discussion, because we’re going to need to come back to this as a health ministers council,” said Kyriakides, adding that this issue needs to stay high on the political agenda. 

Beyond a European approach

COP28, the 2023 edition of the United Nations Climate Change Conference currently underway in Dubai, will celebrate its first Health Day on 3 December and climate-health ministerial meeting. 

Participants of the summit will endorse the Declaration on Climate and Health, a voluntary call to action aiming to boost the resilience of health systems and safeguard and invest in the population’s health.

National delegations, the European Commission and the Spanish presidency announced in the Council their support for the declaration. 

The text puts the emphasis on boosting the transformation of health systems to be climate-resilient, low-carbon, sustainable and equitable, and to better prepare communities and the most vulnerable populations for the impacts of climate change worldwide. 

“This declaration will be serving as a call to action and its endorsement to send a clear signal of ambition and unity,” explained Commissioner Kyriakides during the Council meeting.

[Edited by Giedrė Peseckytė/Nathalie Weatherald]

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