Death toll from Europe's heat wave could exceed 15,000: estimates
PARIS (AFP) Aug 27, 2003
More than 15,000 people, most of them elderly, may have died during a heat wave that blanketed Europe earlier this month, recent estimates showed, leaving the continent in shock and anger.

France was hit hardest by the widespread health emergency sparked by two weeks of stifling temperatures, with the country's largest undertakers' group putting the death toll at about 10,000.

The center-right government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has disputed that figure, initially putting the toll at 3,000 and on Wednesday pledging to release a definitive tally "in the coming days".

But images of hundreds of unclaimed bodies languishing for days in refrigerated trucks and a food warehouse-turned-morgue outside Paris scandalized the country, prompting a national debate on care for the elderly.

In Spain, officials have said that more than 100 people died in the first two weeks of August, when thermometers soared daily to 40 degrees Celsiusdegrees Fahrenheit) across large swathes of Europe.

The Madrid government said an updated toll would be issued in the coming weeks, but the patients' rights watchdog group ADEPA, citing unnamed medical sources, has claimed that 2,000 people may have succumbed to the intense heat.

The health ministry in neighboring Portugal said there were 1,316 more deaths across the country between July 30 and August 12 as compared with the same period last year, attributing the soaring mortality rate to the heat.

Officials across Europe concur that most of the dead are elderly people, many of whom lived alone and went unattended by their relatives during the traditional August holiday period.

In a commentary earlier this week entitled "French barbarity", the newspaper Le Figaro said France had witnessed "such a reversal of values that vacations have become more sacred than the respect we owe our elders."

In Britain, which sweated through the hottest temperatures ever recorded this summer, the Office for National Statistics said that 907 additional deaths were registered in the week ending August 15 as compared with 2002.

Press reports in Italy have put the death toll at 1,000, although no official estimates have been issued. In the Netherlands, officials say between 500 and 1,000 more people died in July and August than during an average summer, but figures were deemed preliminary.

Germany was largely spared by the heat wave, with only about three dozen deaths blamed on the unusually hot weather.

Precise figures have been difficult to obtain as many countries do no collect specific data on heat-related deaths.

Elderly people are especially at risk during heat waves because if they are weak, their body's natural temperature control system cannot cope, leading to an unusually high fever which, in some cases, fatally hits circulation.