France: A year after the heatwave

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Rule No. 1: Don't go out on the street between noon and 4 p.m. Rule No. 2: Take a shower or bath a couple of times a day. Rule No. 3: Drink as much as you can, even if you're not thirsty.

No, these are not instructions for soldiers patrolling the baking streets of Baghdad. They are part of an aggressive move by the French government to avoid a repeat of the catastrophic loss of life that occurred during last year's heat wave.

Last August, almost 15,000 people died in France after the country was hit by the highest temperatures in 50 years. During the day temperatures reached as high as 104 degrees F. for two straight weeks. In Paris, 150 people a day were hospitalized. The crisis predominantly affected the elderly.

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"Last year everyone was taken by surprise," says an official at the French Red Cross, who asked not to be named. August being the holiday season, most of the administration was on vacation. Hospitals had a shortage of beds and were understaffed.

While no heat waves are currently in sight, a new report by the European Environment Agency says that a change in weather patterns will lead to longer summers, warmer winters, and more droughts and precipitation in the future.

Philippe Douste-Blazy, minister of public health, presented his long-awaited plan of action on May 5 this year. His goal was to avoid the criticism the government received last year, saying politicians acted too slowly.

Mr. Douste-Blazy says that most care facilities for the elderly have been furnished with air conditioners. Before, only 12 percent of the public residences for the elderly were equipped with them.

On the airwaves

Radio and television commercials have been produced to instruct the public of what to do when temperatures jump, such as closing the curtains during the daytime and avoiding drinking alcohol. Douste-Blazy even invited weathermen from the country's most popular television channels to get involved in informing their viewers.

Additionally, the government has installed a heat-wave hotline with information and advice, and a national warning system, with four levels of alert.

Hospitals around the country are now equipped with a sufficient number of beds to accommodate a potential influx of patients. In the Parisian region, hospitals are allowed to take on more volunteers than usual to assist the doctors.

"Depending on the state of alert, we will act,'' says the Red Cross official. "At Level 3 we start visiting people at their homes to help them. If necessary we will hand out bottles of water to people on the highways, too.''

Still, experts criticize measures taken so far.

"The situation is comparable to last year,'' complained Patrick Pelloux, chairman of the national association of emergency doctors in French hospitals (AMUHF), to French newspaper Le Monde. Mr. Pelloux was a critic of the government's approach in 2003. According to Pelloux a good deal of staff is still on holiday at this time of year, and many beds are not available.

Others say things may in fact be worse now because of budget cuts.

"I can't predict whether we're really prepared for a new heat wave,'' says Lionel Bordeaux, press attaché for the Paris city council. "Luckily, temperatures are still low and therefore we haven't had to apply the actual plan of action. Still, we have already taken precautionary measures. The elderly in the city have been contacted. As soon as temperatures severely rise, we'll phone them every day just to see how they are doing.''

Registering the elderly

A simple phone call may have helped many elderly people last year. Last August, hundreds of people died in Paris alone while family members were away. Press reports at the time said that many French felt guilty for leaving their parents or grandparents behind while on holiday.

"Fortunately, we didn't see these sort of things happening in our residence," says Gosiane Goutherot, an employee at Bois Le Vent, a home for the elderly in the western part of Paris. Forty-three people live there - the oldest is 99 years old, the youngest is 68. "Most residents were taken home by their children."

French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, however, does not expect that this kind of spontaneous solidarity will get everyone through a next heat wave. He has ordered communities to track down and register all old and isolated inhabitants. If needed, he said, the government can lend a hand and get people through the summer.

In the city of Châteauroux, in the center of France, this kind of French-style state solidarity has recently been put into practice. Officials were instructed to visit the elderly and disabled at home, not simply to find out what they need or to hand out an hot-weather kit (with water bottle and vaporizer), but also just to have a chat. "This is the first opportunity I've ever had to find out what these people really need and why they live in such an isolated way," Christelle Sabouret, a social worker, told Le Monde.

Employees at Bois Le Vent say that not many new precautions have been taken there this year, so they're hoping to see the children of the residents again if the need arises. "We did get good air conditioning," says Ms. Goutherot, though just in the main hall. "If it gets really hot, everyone can sit there.''

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