Heatwaves already causing more deaths, hospitalizations — researchers

But Health Ministry not given funding to deal with crisis; expert warns Israelis unaware climate change is ‘already here and killing people’

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

The scene where a young boy was forgotten in his father's car, in Sdot Negev Regional Council, southern Israel, on August 31, 2021. The baby died of heat prostration (Flash90)
The scene where a young boy was forgotten in his father's car, in Sdot Negev Regional Council, southern Israel, on August 31, 2021. The baby died of heat prostration (Flash90)

Climate change is already taking its toll on Israel’s health system, with both premature deaths from exposure to extreme heat and weather-linked hospital visits on the rise. But the Health Ministry has no action plan or any specific budget for dealing with the consequences of climate change.

Extreme heat can cause premature births and eclampsia and increase the chances of strokes and strong allergic reactions, a conference on climate change and public health at Ben Gurion University in southern Israel heard on Sunday.

Furthermore, with global warming, disease-bearing parasites are spreading to areas where they have no natural predators. Floods caused by heavy rainfall can churn up pollutants and sweep them into the water system. These include animal urine, which can transmit the potentially fatal leptospirosis disease, fears of which have already prompted the temporary closure of streams in northern Israel.

Dr. Tamar Berman, an environmental toxicologist from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University who works with the Health Ministry, told the online confab that while the government had approved a decision (in Hebrew) in 2018 to prepare for climate change, none of the relevant ministries had received any funding to carry out the necessary work.

A Health Ministry spokesperson confirmed to The Times of Israel that “there is no dedicated budget for dealing with the climate crisis.”

Dr. Tamar Berman addresses a Ben Gurion University conference on public health and climate change, on September 12, 2021. (Screenshot)

Some progress had been made, Berman said, with the establishment of a special directorate and seven subcommittees and steps such as the mapping of the heat-related dangers ahead. In the sphere of health, these include increasing pressure on accident and emergency departments, a rise in pathogenic disease and physiological and mental illness, more pollution of the air (for example from sandstorms), and contamination of food (bacteria thrive in warm temperatures and farmers may be pushed to use more pesticides).

Also lacking any mention of funding was a draft for a Climate Bill, unveiled in April by former environmental protection minister Gila Gamliel, which calls for the creation of a national program to tackle climate change, Berman went on. The draft proposed a 2025 deadline for completing such a program. But Israel does not have that much time, Berman said.

Extreme heat has direct effects, helping to worsen chronic disease and even cause death, Berman said, quoting figures from the Lancet Countdown, which tracks government work on health in connection with climate change. These showed that deaths from exposure to extreme heat in Israel had risen from 83 from 2000 to 2004 to 130 between 2014 and 2018. The figures, said Berman, indicated “a very worrying change.”

High temperatures during the first and third trimesters of pregnancy could cause preeclampsia or premature birth, she said.

Nurses at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in the emergency room, on August 27, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Furthermore, data analysis showed that visits to emergency rooms in Israel had risen sixfold between 2010 and 2019 thanks to heatwaves and that more people with heart and blood diseases were being hospitalized during the summer.

With increasing aridity of land, an uptick in sandstorms also has to be prepared for, since they can cause lung damage, she added.

File: A man covers his face while crossing the street as a sandstorm hits Israel, on November 4, 2015. (Flash90)

Indirect effects included the spreading of disease-bearing insects and changes in the availability of water and in the quantity and variety of food.

Berman emphasized that the severity of effects would depend on the geographical location and socioeconomic status of the populations involved.

“There are recommendations for action and we know what we need to do but there are no budgets or personnel and without them, it won’t happen,” Berman said. “We are very good at exercises for emergency, we know how to prepare for extreme events. We have the National Emergency Authority and the Home Front Command. We need as great an investment as there has been in the COVID-19 pandemic.”

A traffic light system similar to the one that ranks coronavirus-affected areas by severity could be designed to alert geographical areas in the country to forecasts of heatwaves, she suggested. And just as there is a coronavirus czar, a central figure was needed to coordinate the national response to climate change.

Berman said that she saw how quickly and efficiently the government could act when it wanted to, giving the example of a Prime Minister’s Office plan to slash regulation.

Prof. Nadav Davidovitch. (Courtesy)

Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, an epidemiologist, public health physician, Ben-Gurion University (BGU) professor and leader of Israel’s doctors’ union, said that there was no sense of an immediate crisis, neither in the medical world nor the government.

He was a key force in the establishment in March at BGU of the country’s first School of Sustainability and Climate Change.

“People don’t grasp that it’s already here and killing people. It’s not seen as a crisis. This is a marathon race, but we don’t have the ear of leadership,” Davidovitch said.

Most people in Israel are aware of extreme heatwaves and storms but don’t link them with climate change or any kind of emergency, BGU’s Dr. Stav Shapira agreed. She researches preparedness and response to emergency and disaster situations.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz addresses a Ben Gurion University conference on public health and climate change, on September 12, 2021. (Screenshot)

In an impassioned speech to open the conference, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), a former journalist and past recipient of the Pratt Prize for Environmental Journalism, said that the World Health Organization had pronounced climate change to be the most important health challenge of the century.

“We are taking this very seriously indeed at the Health Ministry,” he said. “There’s a national program which needs to be pushed forward and sharpened up, together with other ministries, to prepare the country for climate change… From my point of view, it’s a top priority. It’s the top emergency and health issue when we look at the coming years.”

A Health Ministry spokesperson told The Times of Israel that the public health service was preparing for climate change on several levels, together with staff from the ministry’s geriatric wing and the environmental epidemiology department. The latter’s activities included collecting research data and designing mechanisms both for measuring the effects of climate change on the population (the implementation of which depended on funding being made available) and for coordinating with other relevant bodies.

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