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France Heat Wave Death Toll at 15,000

September 9, 2003 GMT

PARIS (AP) _ France’s leading undertaker estimated the country’s death toll from the summer heat wave at 15,000 on Tuesday, far exceeding the official tally and putting further pressure on the government to improve its health care system.

The estimate by the General Funeral Services included deaths from the second half of August, after the record-breaking temperatures of the first half of the month had abated, said company spokeswoman Isabelle Dubois-Costes.

The bulk of the victims _ many of them elderly _ died during the height of the heat wave, which brought suffocating temperatures of up to 104 degrees in a country where air conditioning is rare. Others apparently were greatly weakened during the peak temperatures but did not die until days later.

The government at the end of August announced a preliminary death toll of 11,435, but that figure was based only on deaths in the first two weeks of the month.

The Health Surveillance Institute, which calculates the official toll for the government, would not comment on the undertaker estimate and said it would release updated figures for August at the end of September.

The new estimate came after the government on Monday released a harshly worded report blaming the deaths on hospital understaffing during summer holidays, widespread failure among agencies and health services to coordinate efforts, and chronically insufficient care for the elderly.

The report called on authorities to take bold steps, including the establishment of a health alert system to prevent a similar disaster. It was still unclear how the government planned to deal with the heat wave’s fallout.

While the government has been widely criticized for a slow response to the crisis, President Jacques Chirac’s center-right government has suffered minimal political damage _ thanks in large part to the disarray and lagging popularity of the opposition since Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin fell from power last year.

Opposition lawmakers were eager to blame the government.

``To listen to the government, everybody is responsible, except the government,″ Olivier Besancenot, a far-left politician who ran for president last year, told RTL radio on Tuesday in reaction to the government report.

The most pervasive reaction among the French was shock at the increasing numbers.


``There have never been so many deaths in August since the Liberation,″ declared the front-page headline in Le Monde’s early Wednesday edition, which came out Tuesday afternoon and contained detailed reports on methods of tallying the death toll.

General Funeral Services has 25 percent of the funeral market in France, and compiled its tally by estimating the increased number of deaths it handled in August compared to last year, then multiplying the result by four to get an estimate for the whole country.

The company was the first to come forward with a death estimate that registered the magnitude of the disaster when it announced in August that some 10,000 had died. The government at that time had put the figure at several thousand at the most.

The heat baked many parts of Europe, killing livestock and fanning forest fires, but experts said the heat was more severe in France because temperatures did not drop at night, meaning those exhausted from the daytime heat enjoyed no respite when the sun went down.

The high death toll has triggered an angry debate in France over shortcomings of the health system. The government is considering eliminating a national holiday to raise revenues for elderly care.

The French lifestyle has also come under scrutiny, since some of the elderly victims died alone in their homes while families were away on lengthy August holidays. Authorities reportedly had difficulties making contact with survivors who were away on vacation.

French doctors on Tuesday reacted angrily to the government report, saying they were being made into scapegoats. The report said many patients had to go without adequate care because doctors and other health care workers were on vacation.

Gilles Brucker, director of the Health Surveillance Institute, disputed the report’s assertion that the institute failed to perform as it was supposed to as temperatures rose dangerously high.

The institute ``did all that it was asked,″ Brucker was quoted as saying in an interview published Tuesday in Le Parisien newspaper. He added that he would not resign because his organization committed ``no major faults.″

Brucker also disputed the report’s allegation that an alert system would have made a substantial difference in the scope of the disaster.

``I can tell you that even if the (Institute) had raised the alarm with all its might, it wouldn’t have changed much,″ Brucker said. ``To sum up the causes of this tragedy to the lack of an alert is unacceptable.″