Climate change affects health both directly (heat waves, extreme weather events, etc.) and indirectly (forced migration, longer outdoor time, increasing use of cooling systems, etc.).

They will increase environmental problems, causing droughts, heat waves, floods, storms, forest fires and promoting new or more virulent forms of diseases (human, animal or plant).

Since health and well-being are closely linked to socio-economic factors (income, housing, employment, education, lifestyle, etc.), the effects of climate change are expected to amplify health inequalities within and between countries, increase the vulnerability of low-income groups and specific groups such as children, people working outside, the elderly, or people already ill.

Increased frequency and magnitude of heat waves

During the 20th century, Belgium was confronted with a heat wave every other year on average. However, since the 1990s, we have experienced an average of one heat wave per year.

Heat waves have a significant negative impact on health: dehydration, heat stroke, exhaustion. They lead to increased mortality and morbidity, especially among vulnerable populations (young children, the elderly, high-level athletes).

Extreme temperatures also increase exposure to other pollutants such as ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter.

The increased use of cooling could also encourage the development of Legionella sp.

Increase in vector-borne diseases

Vector-borne diseases are transmitted by organisms such as ticks (vectors of tick-borne encephalitis, or Lyme disease), mosquitoes (some species are potential vectors of chikungunya, dengue fever, malaria, or Rift Valley fever) or phlebotomous (e. g. responsible for visceral leishmaniasis).

Climate change could affect the distribution and survival of both vectors and pathogens and lead to the emergence of diseases in areas where they had not yet been observed (or had been eradicated).

Decrease in mortality due to cold waves

Cold spells cause some winter diseases (cardiovascular disease, hypothermia). It is expected that rising temperatures will reduce the prevalence of some winter diseases, although no detailed studies on this issue are available for Belgium. The IPCC indicates that it is almost certain that there will be fewer cold extreme temperatures almost everywhere in the world as a result of the average increase in temperatures. Winters will be milder.

Physical and psychological disorders related to extreme events

Climate change can directly affect health (mental disorders, injuries, deaths, contamination, etc.) due to the expected increase in extreme weather events, which include floods, storms, fires and droughts.

The number of winter floods is expected to increase in north-western European countries and flash floods throughout the EU. Coastal flooding could threaten up to 1.6 million people each year in the European Union.

Deterioration of air quality

Climate change is expected to affect mortality and morbidity associated with air pollution (respiratory and cardiovascular diseases). Climate change will affect ground-level ozone concentrations, which will affect mortality and respiratory hospitalizations.

Deterioration of water quality

Many diseases are contracted through contaminated food or water. Increasing the water temperature can lead to the development of bacteria or algae that cause food poisoning. Heavy precipitation can lead to the mobilization of pathogens or contamination of sewer overflow water. Reducing water flows in summer can increase the risk of bacterial and chemical contamination. Europe could face an increase in the prevalence of diseases such as botulism – caused by water disorders (anaerobic hot water).

Temperature-sensitive infectious diseases, such as foodborne infections (Salmonella sp. and others.) are likely to increase.

Increase in allergic disorders

The increase in temperature favour the extension of the pollination period or even favour the development of certain allergenic (and invasive) plants such as ragweed.

Rising temperatures and decreasing precipitation at the time of pollen dispersal could lead to higher concentrations of pollen in the air during the high season

Studies suggest that the proportion of hospital admissions for heat-related respiratory problems may triple between 2021 and 2050 compared to 1981-2010. Urban populations (and in particular vulnerable groups such as children and the elderly) are increasingly exposed to these problems.

In general, maintaining an efficient health system and caring for vulnerable and vulnerable people (high-performance home services to combat isolation, emergency hospital reception, access to care, access to refuge areas such as green spaces, forests, etc.) contribute to strengthening the sector’s resilience to climate change.

In addition, various specific measures contribute to adaptation to climate change, including:

Federal and regional heat and ozone plans, taking into account one decade of experience in Belgium.

National Medical Intervention Plan (2017) taking into account all natural or man-caused disasters.

Study aiming to establish a system to monitor the health effects of climate change.

Large surveillance system of air allergens and pollutants (pollen, particulate matter, CO2, NOx, etc.)

– Project monitoring of exotic mosquitoes (MEMO-project)

– Within the NEHAP, the National Action Plan Environment – Health, a platform that enables cooperation between the regions, communities and the Federal Public Service for Public Health, Food Chain Safety and the Environment, attention is paid to adaptation measures and it is expected that this focus will only increase.

– Systems of identification and surveillance of infectious and vector borne diseases which can be linked to climate change.

These systems include list with notifiable diseases (including  Lyme disease, malaria, zika, etc).

– Establishment of a national platform for information exchange and cooperation regarding foodborne diseases (incl. food safety and health authorities).

– Work on short term effects of atmospheric pollution and of the climate on all-cause mortality in Belgium as well as modelling of the impact of temperature on the epidemiological evolution of infectious diseases (WIV-ISP).

– Development of e-training modules for medical doctors and specialists on environment and health issues, taking climate change impacts on health into account.

Case Studies


Tracking Invasive Alien Species – TrIAS
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