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Controversy in France over plight of elderly in searing summer heat

 Yahoo News , August 11, 2003


PhotoPARIS (AFP) - As a punishing heat wave dragged into its second week in France, controversy erupted over the number of deaths attributable to the summer heat, with a top emergency doctor warning of an imminent disaster.

Patrick Pelloux, head of France's association of emergency doctors, on Sunday claimed that at least 50 people had died of heat-related illnesses in Paris in recent days, adding: "The weakest are dropping like flies."

Another doctor, Patrick Teissiere, said Monday he feared Pelloux's estimate was "lower than the reality," adding that the number of emergency patients in the Paris area had doubled in the past week as compared with 2002.

The popular daily Le Parisien on Monday quoted medical sources as saying hundreds of elderly people, many of whom had chronic ailments, had died in the heat. The morgues in Paris are full, the paper reported.

Despite the alarming reports, France's health service has refused to give an official death toll, saying it does not yet have accurate statistics on recent deaths due to the oppressive weather.

But it acknowledged that "high temperatures are clearly associated with a rise in deaths," adding that final figures would take some time to compile.

The health ministry meanwhile confirmed that more elderly people were seeking treatment at hospitals in the heat, but said emergency rooms were not over-stretched.

"The difficulties encountered are comparable to those seen in years past, except for a few isolated cases at particular establishments in one or two parts of the Paris area," the ministry said in a statement.

Pierre Carli, head of Paris paramedic services, told Le Parisien: "It will be difficult to determine how much the heat has contributed to the deaths recorded. To do that, we would need to conduct an epidemiological analysis, even if clearly, something exceptional and very serious is going on."

Parisians suffered through the hottest night on record -- 25.5 degrees Celsius (77.9 degrees Fahrenheit) -- and sultry summer temperatures across the country were not expected to break until later in the week, France's national weather service Meteo France said Monday.

Aides to Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said the government had authorized nuclear power plants owned by EDF, the state-owned utility, to pump waste water into nearby rivers at higher temperatures than are usually allowed.

The emergency measure was approved to stave off possible power cuts, even though it could harm the environment.

The hot weather is meanwhile continuing to fuel forest fires in the south of the country, where hundreds of firefighters were battling a blaze in the hills northeast of the Riviera city of Nice on Monday.

Fire services said they had contained a blaze in the southern Lozere department near the Cevennes national park but remained on alert, while two separate blazes ravaged forests on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica.

The head of the Paris mosque, Dalil Boubakeur, on Monday urged Muslims across France to pray for rain to bring relief from the heat, following a similar call from Pope John Paul II to Catholic worshippers on Sunday.  

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