~ Friday, August 15, 2003
NY Times - Heat Wave In Europe
August 15, 2003
Heat Is Easing in Europe, but Not for Leaders in France
By JOHN TAGLIABUE
ARIS, Aug. 14 — While Europe's record heat wave has begun to moderate, the recriminations for what is only now being recognized as an epidemic of heat-related death are just beginning.
The withering heat of the last several weeks is being blamed for hundreds of deaths across Europe, and perhaps 3,000 deaths in France alone, according to Jean-François Mattei, the minister of health in France, where the bodies have been piling up quickly in the 100 degree-plus temperatures.
"We can now qualify what has occurred as a true epidemic, with all that this entails regarding the number of victims," Mr. Mattei told the French radio today.
So many bodies were delivered in recent weeks to the Paris morgue that refrigerated tents had to be erected outside the city to accommodate them all. While temperatures have fallen into the 80's the last two days and were expected to continue to moderate, thermometers hovered near 100 degrees from mid-July in France, peaking at about 105 in some places, with high humidity. Health experts said the stress of such heat, coupled with a general lack of air conditioning and insufficient public preparedness, was to blame for the high death toll.
But the heat wave continued elsewhere, with temperatures Wednesday of 98 in Prague, 100 in Vienna and 105 in parts of northern Italy.
In the early days of this summer's heat wave, officials played down its significance, and most of the French government left for the annual monthlong August vacation. But as the death toll grew, the finger-pointing began.
"The figures are becoming catastrophic," said Dr. Patrick Pelloux, the president of the association of emergency room physicians. Addressing a news conference in Paris, he said that `'we cannot yet measure the phenomenon," and called on the government to apply throughout France emergency measures that were put in place in Paris on Wednesday providing for extra hospital beds and staffing and for temporary morgues.
Hospitals, morgues and funeral directors have reported increased deaths. In France, General Funeral Services, which handles roughly one-fourth the country's burials, said it handled about 3,230 deaths in the week to Aug. 12, or 37 percent more than the 2,300 during an average week in the year. The Health Ministry said it had based its estimates of 3,000 deaths on that number plus mortality figures supplied by 23 hospitals in the Paris region during the three weeks to Aug. 12.
While most of the victims have been elderly, the deaths in Germany included a 52-year old postal worker in Mannheim, in the southwest, who died after collapsing at work. In northern Italy, at least 16 deaths were reported in Milan this week, while in Turin 30 victims were reported Tuesday and a further 16 on Wednesday. The authorities said the victims were all elderly.
In Spain, a 49-year-old woman died today at Cáceres in the southern province of Estremadura, health officials said. They said the heat toll so far for Spain was about 40.
One factor common to the victims was a lack of air conditioning, which is less common in Europe than in the United States. But the problem was aggravated by the practice, at least in France, Italy and Spain, of shutting down parts of hospitals while doctors and staff take August vacations. The director of the big Saint-Louis Hospital, in Paris's 10th Arrondissement, Jean-Patrick Lajonchère, told the daily Le Monde that 35 percent of the hospital's capacity had been closed because of the summer break.
The city's medical system appeared overwhelmed. The Lariboisière Hospital, one of Paris's largest, reported about 220 admissions a day through the week. As part of an emergency plan, the government on Wednesday began calling back hospital workers and government employees.
This being France, the heat also sparked a political emergency. As recently as Tuesday, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin was rejecting criticism of his handling of the heat-related deaths as "partisan polemics." But today he cut short his vacation to convene cabinet ministers who approved, among other measures, extending the Paris emergency plan in place to the entire country and opening military hospitals to those, particularly the elderly, suffering from the heat.
The government also commissioned the Institute for Health Surveillance, a public health agency in Paris, to canvass hospitals and other public health facilities to determine why so many of the French perished in the invasion of heat and humidity.
But the opposition political parties assailed Mr. Raffarin for doing too little too late. The Communist Party linked the crisis with government efforts to rein in health spending. The tiny Greens Party called for Mr. Raffarin's resignation.
Mr. Raffarin refused, telling reporters: "I will not resign," adding: "This is not the time for arguing. I feel that I have done all that was necessary at the right time."