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Thursday, July 10, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 8/24/2003

In France, the heat is on

For a lesson in how not to respond to a heat wave, look to France, where finger-pointing and alibis cannot overcome the tragedy of 10,000 heat-related deaths.

Oddly enough, despite temperatures that exceeded 100 degrees in much of Europe earlier this month, no other European nation is expected to report nearly as many deaths as France, even though the number of deaths in Germany and Spain could also climb.

Although air conditioning is not common in France, some of the deaths of the elderly and people who lived alone might have been prevented had residents increased their water intake and gone outside sweltering apartment dwellings. Many of those who died succumbed to dehydration and heat stroke.

But it doesn't look as though the French got the message about how to prevent succumbing to the heat because health officials were too busy cooking the numbers to make themselves look good. Initially the French health minister estimated that from 1,600 to 3,000 people died.

Ultimately, the director general of health, Lucien Abenhaim, resigned over the discrepancy of the death toll, and his superior, Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei, could follow suit.

This is reminiscent of the SARS breakout last winter in Asia. Asian health administrators at first refused to acknowledge the truth about how many people died from severe acute respiratory syndrome.

Meanwhile, as one group tries to blame the other, French families are being faulted for taking a vacation and not checking on elderly relatives. The government is criticized for slashing health budgets, which decreased the number of health workers on hand to deal with the crisis. Plus, the government reduced the French workweek to 35 hours, leaving medical facilities even more short staffed.

Nobody could have foreseen such a devastating human toll. Yet France's inept response aggravated the crisis and deserves the criticism. Clearly the French experience should stand as lesson for the rest of the world.



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