- The Washington Times - Friday, August 29, 2003

PARIS — French health officials said yesterday that 11,435 more persons died during the sweltering first two weeks of August than during the like period in recent years.

The number far exceeded the government’s initial estimates of the death toll from the heat and was 4,200 more deaths than France recorded in road accidents in all of 2002.

From Aug. 1 to Aug. 15, when much of Europe baked in record temperatures, nearly 800 more people died each day in France than usual, according to the figures from the Health Ministry.

“These figures were calculated in an extremely precise manner,” said Gilles Brucker, director of the Health Surveillance Institute that put the death toll together.

Mr. Brucker told France-2 television “today’s is a totally precise figure of deaths linked to the heat between Aug. 1 and 15.”

The toll made the center-right government the target of new accusations that it reacted too slowly to the crisis. Many victims were elderly, dying alone at home or in overwhelmed hospitals and nursing homes.

A deputy mayor of Paris, Yves Contassot, called for the resignation of Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei — reviving a demand that had been mostly dormant for the past week.

Health officials said the heat toll was reached by comparing the number of death certificates from Aug. 1 to Aug. 15 with the average number during the same period in 2000, 2001 and 2002.

In a statement, the Health Ministry did not directly link the death toll to the heat and called the figures “provisional.” But a ministry spokeswoman, Annick Gardies, conceded that “many” deaths were because of the extreme temperatures.

The government is scrambling to fill gaps in a once widely respected health system that were exposed by the crisis — even suggesting that it may abolish one of 11 national annual holidays to finance care for the elderly.

Dr. Patrick Pelloux, among the first to raise the alarm that people were dying while the government was still playing down the crisis, congratulated health officials for finally producing a death toll.

“It’s motivation for understanding why our system, which we believed to be the best in the world, suffered a monstrous glitch,” said Dr. Pelloux, president of an association of emergency physicians.

Shortly after signs of additional deaths appeared, the government first estimated that 1,600 to 3,000 people died from heat-related causes starting on Aug. 7. Then, it said a figure of 5,000 was “plausible” before finally agreeing that an estimate of 10,000 by France’s largest undertaking business was probably most accurate.

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