MADRID – The summer of 2022 was the deadliest summer of the past 72 years in Spain. In the months of June, July and August 120,000 people died, about 2,500 per million inhabitants. The last time with a similar percentage was in 1950.
Summer also goes down in the books as one of the hottest summers in history. However, experts are not yet ready to give a definitive explanation for these unusual death rates. Although the country’s population has grown significantly since the 1950s (then the country had 28 million inhabitants and now more than 47 million), the death rate has remained constant between 1,800 and 2,100 year on year. Until 2022.
Over 20,000 deaths more than expected
In absolute figures, it is the summer with the most deaths in our country since 1941, according to data from the daily mortality monitoring system (MoMo) and the Death Statistics of the statistical office INE and analysed by the newspaper El Diario. Nearly 120,000 people have died from all causes in the past three months. This figure represents more than 20,000 deaths above what was expected for the period from June to August.
Related post: Number of deaths attributed to heat in Spain triples
Also two years ago, in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, summer death rates were not as high as they were this year. Mortality has increased by 13% compared to last summer and by 18% compared to 2020, the first pandemic summer. In addition, it should be borne in mind that these figures may be even higher. The mortality data for 2020 is not yet consolidated and there may be delays in notifications to health services.
In recording the historical series of deaths, a peak falls in 2003. That summer nearly 100,000 people died in Spain, a figure directly related to the relentless heatwave that hit Europe that year.
2022 deadliest summer
This summer, however, experts don’t seem to be able to find a definitive explanation as to where the unusual death rates for June, July and August come from. “You don’t know. Deaths recorded from heat are nowhere near the total excess mortality, so you can only speculate,” explains Fernando Rodríguez Artalejo, professor of Public Health at the Autonomous University of Madrid.
Regarding deaths from coronavirus, he notes: “It would be necessary to know how many deaths are due to Covid (bilateral pneumonia) or due to decompensation of chronic pathologies. Of all deaths certified as Covid this year, only 30-40% are due to infection, so it doesn’t seem likely that the coronavirus will account for a significant proportion of the excess deaths.
The INE periodically publishes its death statistics by cause of death, but it is a statistical operation that takes time to prepare. The last available data is from 2020. The data for 2021 will therefore not be available until the end of this year, and to know the details of the deaths from 2022 it will be necessary to wait until the end of 2023. Rodríguez Artalejo emphasises that these data are “the only information that might give a clue”.
Possible “perfect storm”
Several experts emphasise the uncertainties surrounding the causes of this excess mortality. They acknowledge that we still don’t know why this is happening. However, they point to a series of factors that may have come together to create a “perfect storm.”
Warmth is a key factor (but not the only one)
One of the main elements of summer mortality is heat, as indicated by experts consulted in this way. Temperatures have been very high and constant this year. It has been a summer with temperatures never seen in much of Spain due to their duration, intensity and territorial scope. A trend fueled by the climate crisis that has led to a 42-day heat wave for the first time this summer.
The correlation between extreme temperatures and mortality is repeated summer after summer in Spain. The intersection of data from the MoMo and the AEMET shows how mortality skyrockets in increasingly extreme heat waves.
María del Campo Giménez, a primary care physician and family physician of the Program for Preventive Activities and Health Promotion (PAPPS) of the Spanish Association of Family and Community Medicine (semFYC), explains that “heat-related death is not only quantified by what is known as ‘heat stroke’. ‘, but it is also linked to the exacerbation of pre-existing conditions and illness such as cardiovascular, respiratory, lung, renal, gastrointestinal or even neurological diseases”.
Weak health system after the pandemic
The effects of extreme heat on health are undeniable, but the experts consulted point to other factors. One would be the weakness of the health system after the pandemic. In the municipality of Madrid, for example, waiting lists for diagnostic tests or external consultations are highest and continue to grow.
In summary, the specialists consulted agreed that the high mortality rate this summer is “a kind of perfect storm” from excessive temperatures, traces of the coronavirus and poorer health care.