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Heat Wave Kills About 3,000 in France

August 14, 2003

PARIS (AP) _ About 3,000 people have died in France of heat-related causes since abnormally high temperatures swept across the country about two weeks ago, the health ministry estimated Thursday.

It was the government’s first official death toll estimate. One of the few organizations to issue an estimate, France’s emergency hospital physicians’ association, had earlier this week said the death toll was at least 100.

``We can now state what’s happening to us is a veritable epidemic,″ Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei said on France-Inter radio.

Over the past few days, various city and regional governments had issued death estimates in their areas. The national government said it was working to compile full, nationwide figures.

Morgues and funeral directors have reported skyrocketing demand for their services since the heat wave took hold. General Funeral Services, France’s largest undertaker, said it handled some 3,230 deaths from Aug. 6-12, compared to 2,300 on an average week in the year _ a 37 percent jump.

The ministry said its estimate was partly drawn from studying deaths in 23 Paris regional hospitals from July 25-Aug. 12 and from information provided by General Funeral Services.

According to 2002 figures, the Paris regional hospitals that were surveyed could have expected some 39 deaths a day, the ministry said. But on Aug. 12 this year, during the heat wave, they recorded nearly 180, it said.

``We note a clear increase in cases beginning Aug. 7-8, which we can regard as the start of the epidemic of deaths linked to the heat,″ the health ministry said in a written statement.

Many of the victims were elderly, and Mattei said the high death rate was a result of an ``exceptional″ heat wave combined with an aging population.

Health officials say August is often a time when elderly people find themselves alone, when their families go on vacation.

``They are often alone in Paris when their families go away on holiday,″ said health ministry spokeswoman Laurence Danand. ``There are a lot of elderly people alone in big cities in August.″

Danand said an exact figure would be released next week on the number of heat-related deaths, based on a survey of all private and public medical institutions, including retirement homes.

On Wednesday, days after the first complaints accusing the government of a slow response to heat-related deaths, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin asked the Paris region to launch an emergency hospital plan to provide for a massive influx of patients.

Mattei also acknowledged ``difficulties″ for the government in managing the surge in temperatures, but said that hospital staffers were performing in an ``exemplary″ manner in response.

The government ``carried out the responses that were needed″ as soon as the first cases of heat-related death appeared about a week ago, Mattei said.

``We didn’t just remain inactive,″ he said.

Paris City Hall said Wednesday it had taken extra measures to ensure that city-run funeral homes would remain open to bury bodies on Friday, a holiday in France, and recall more than 30 municipal workers from vacation.

To protect the elderly, the city government’s 13 retirement homes bought extra fans and atomizers to keep their residents cool in a country where air conditioning is not widespread.

Record-high temperatures have been set in numerous cities across France, and the capital has baked under heat exceeding 98 degrees. The average August temperature in Paris, which has warm but not torrid summers, is 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

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