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France Heat Wave Death Toll Set at 14,802

September 25, 2003 GMT

PARIS (AP) _ The death toll in France from August’s blistering heat wave has reached nearly 15,000, according to a government-commissioned report released Thursday, surpassing a prior tally by more than 3,000.

Scientists at INSERM, the National Institute of Health and Medical Research, deduced the toll by determining that France had experienced 14,802 more deaths than expected for the month of August.

The toll exceeds the prior government count of 11,435, a figure that was based only on deaths in the first two weeks of the month.

The new estimate includes deaths from the second half of August, after the record-breaking temperatures of the first half of the month had abated.

Most victims _ the vast majority of them elderly _ died during the height of the heat wave, which brought suffocating temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in a country where air conditioning is rare. Others apparently were greatly weakened during the peak temperatures but did not die until days later.

Some 56,000 people died this August in France, the report said. The death rate was 70 percent higher than usual for women and 40 percent higher for men. Researcher Denis Hemon suggested one partial explanation for the disparity: Because women live longer, there were simply more elderly women at risk.

Among the hardest-hit areas was the Paris region. The breezy seaside regions of northern and northwest France suffered least. There were also fewer deaths in areas where people are used to sweltering heat, such as the French Riviera and the Mediterranean island of Corsica.

About 42 percent of the victims died at hospitals _ which were crowded with patients and understaffed during the crisis. The report said that 35 percent died at home, 19 percent in retirement homes and 3 percent in private clinics.

The heat wave brought a massive failure for France’s healthcare system, one of the world’s best.

On Wednesday, the French Parliament released a harshly worded report blaming the deaths on the complexity of the health system, widespread failure among agencies and health services to coordinate efforts, and chronically insufficient care for the elderly.

The two INSERM researchers who delivered the report were to continue their analysis of deaths to determine what the actual cause was for the spike in mortality, the Health Ministry said.

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The researchers, Hemon and Eric Jougla, were also to recommend ways of improving France’s warnings system to better manage such heat-related crises in the future.

Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei has ordered a separate special study this month to look into a possible link with vacation schedules after doctors strongly denied allegations their absence put the elderly in danger. The heat wave hit during the August vacation period, when doctors, hospital staff and many others take leave. The results of that study are expected in November.

The role of vacations is a touchy subject. The National General Practitioners Union says that only about 20 percent of general practitioners were away during the heat wave.

The heat wave swept across much of Europe, but the death toll was far higher in France than in any other country.

Other countries hit by the heat have been slower than France to come out with death tolls, but it’s clear they also suffered thousands of deaths.

Environmental experts warn that because of climate change, such heat waves are expected to increase in number in coming years, meaning Europe _ a continent that historically has enjoyed a temperate climate _ will have to make adjustments.