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Environ Res. 2005 Jul;98(3):390-9. Epub 2004 Dec 8.

Epidemiologic study of mortality during the Summer 2003 heat wave in Italy.

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Bureau of Statistics, National Centre of Epidemiology, Surveillance and Promotion of Health, Italian National Institute of Health (Istituto Superiore di Sanità), Viale Regina Elena 299, 00161 Rome, Italy.



It is widely recognized that extreme climatic conditions during summer months may constitute a major public health threat. Owing to what is called the "urban heat island effect," as well as to the consequences of heat waves on health, individuals living in cities have an elevated risk of death when temperature and humidity are high compared to those living in suburban and rural areas. Studies on heat wave-related mortality have further demonstrated that the greatest increases in mortality occur in the elderly. Following the unusually hot summer of 2003 and the dramatic news from neighboring countries such as France, the Italian Minister of Health requested the Istituto Superiore di Sanita-Bureau of Statistics to undertake an epidemiologic study of mortality in Italy during Summer 2003 to investigate whether there had been an excess of deaths, with a particular focus on the elderly population.


Communal offices, which maintain vital statistics, were asked for the individual records of death of residents registered daily during the period 1 June-31 August 2003 and during the same period of 2002 for each of the 21 capitals of the Italian regions. As it was necessary to obtain mortality data quickly from many municipalities and to make the analysis as soon as possible, the method adopted was comparison of mortality counts during the heat wave with figures observed during the same period of the previous year.


Compared with 2002, between 1 June and 31 August 2003, there was an overall increase in mortality of 3134 (from 20,564 to 23,698). The greatest increase was among the elderly; 2876 deaths (92%) occurred among people aged 75 years and older, a more than one-fifth increase (21.3%, from 13.517 to 16.393%). The highest increases were observed in the northwestern cities, which are generally characterized by cold weather, and in individuals 75 years and older: Turin (44.9%), Trento (35.2%), Milan (30.6%), and Genoa (22.2%). Of note are also the increases observed in two southern cities, L'Aquila (24.7%) and Potenza (25.4%), which are located, respectively, at 700 and 800 m above see level. For Bari and Campobasso, both in the South, with a typically hot summer climate, the increase during the last 15 days of August was 186.2 and 450%, respectively.


The relationship between mortality and discomfort due to climatic conditions as well as the short lag time give a clear public health message: preventive, social, and health care actions must be administered to the elderly and the frail to avoid excess deaths during heat waves.

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