of the Elderly: Death Toll in French Heatwave Rises to 10,000
John Lichfield in Paris
The summer of
2003 will be remembered as the year of the holocaust of the French
reeling yesterday from figures that suggested some 10,000 people - mostly
over the age of 75 - were killed by this month's heatwave, double the
As a political
storm raged over blame for the deaths, President Jacques Chirac called an
emergency cabinet meeting and promised an inquiry to examine "with
complete openness" the failings of the health and welfare system.
Half the victims
are believed to have died in old people's homes, many operating with fewer
staff during the August holidays. Many hospitals had closed complete wards
for the month and were unable to offer sophisticated, or sometimes even
basic, treatment to victims. About 2,000 people are thought to have died
in their homes from the effects of dehydration and other heat- related
problems while neighbours and relatives were away.
Such was the
death rate - described officially as a period of "surplus
mortality" - that families are now having to wait for up to two weeks
for a funeral because of a shortage of coffins, priests and grave-diggers.
M. Chirac, who
has been criticisedfor refusing to break off his two-week holiday in
Quebec, promised in a nationwide address yesterday that "everything
will be done to correct the shortcomings" exposed by the disaster.
"Many fragile people died alone in their homes," he admitted.
officials have claimed ministers reacted slowly to warnings in early
August that a calamity was in the making, while the Health Minister,
Jean-François Mattei, has insisted he was not given adequate advice. By
the time he and the Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, broke off
holidays last week and ordered the emergency recall of hospital staff, the
worst of the 10-day heatwave was over. Earlier this week, the director
general of health, Lucien Abenhaim, resigned, complaining ministers had
ignored his warnings, including a plea that military and Red Cross
hospitals should be commandeered to ease the burden on state hospitals.
professionals - including the doctor, former health minister and founder
of Médécins Sans Frontières, Bernard Kouchner - said it had been a
disaster waiting to happen. "We are all to blame," Dr Kouchner
said, irritating many of his colleagues on the left, who had hoped the
crisis would help them to destabilise the centre-right government and head
off health reforms planned this autumn.
Dr Michel Dèsmaizieres,
an emergency service doctor in Paris, told the newspaper Libération:
"It is just not right to see [patients on] trolleys in the corridors,
while whole wards were empty and locked up. In the retirement homes there
were people with a body temperature of 42C [108F], for whom we could offer
nothing but a little comfort."
M. Mattei, also a
former doctor, reluctantly admitted earlier this week that as many as
5,000 extra deaths were recorded - 80 per cent of them old people - in the
first half of this month. However, France's largest funeral directors'
association has now calculated that there were at least 10,000 extra
deaths in the period up to Wednesday of this week, many of them on 12
August when temperatures peaked at more than 100F (37.8C) in northern
France. About half the extra deaths were in the Paris area.
officials described these figures as "plausible" but urged
caution until an official investigation was completed next month.
Dr Marc Harboun,
a specialist geriatrics from Ivry, near Paris, said: "This death rate
is due to a lack of people and means to reduce the temperature [of the
patients]. Medically, we could cope by increasing the dosage in
transfusions but, for the other things we needed to do - making the
patients drink, dampening them down - we didn't have the time."
Officials said 85
per cent of all public and private retirement homes in France were
permanently understaffed. At holiday times, staffing levels fell even
One woman, Claude
Guérin, described how she took her elderly aunt to a hospital on the Côte
d'Azur, suffering from pulmonary problems brought on by the heat.
"She was 96, but she was fighting fit before the heatwave," said
she was put in an air-conditioned revival room but then she was abruptly
transferred to a ward where it was 50C [122F]. I talked to two nurses. One
said: 'I don't have time to bother with her.' The other said: 'Get her out
of here.' But the doctors would not let her go. Three days later, she
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