French officials take new steps to protect citizens in heat wave

Dozens have died in three scorching weeks in France, but new steps have saved lives.

The French have been waiting and planning for this heat wave, timrously, for three years. And their preparations, so far, appear to be successful in the face of challenges.

Temperatures in much of the country for the past three weeks have held steady in the high 90s F., and above. Private surgeons and anesthesiologists are on strike. The groundwater table in the area around Paris is at its lowest in 20 years. Some towns, including the ultra-fashionable Saint-Tropez, have seen blackouts. The Public Health Institute attributed the deaths of some 40 people, 19 in just the past week, to the heat.

Yet the authorities are feeling pretty good, at least compared to three years ago.

The summer of 2003 saw 15,000 people – in nursing homes, hospitals, on job sites and oven-like apartments – die from the heat in one 16-day period. The government, on vacation like much of France, failed to respond until the final days of the crisis.

"The big difference is we have a heat wave plan, and it's working," said Gilles Brucker, the director general of the institute, in an interview with Le Parisien newspaper published Wednesday.

Indeed, good news about heat waves is usually hard to find. In California, state and local authorities reported at least 56 possible heat-related deaths during an 11-day heatwave. But volunteers, local city halls and the French government seemed to have gotten it right this year.

In one example some 500 medical students and retired physicians responded to a health ministry appeal for extra manpower.

"I remember what happened three years ago and how shocked I was," says Tifaine Belhacq, a third-year medical student who showed up at her neighborhood hospital, Hospital Saint-Antoine, in Paris, to volunteer. "I'm here anyway and I think it will be a good experience."

Since 2003, some public hospitals have air conditioned their emergency rooms. They are required to provide things like fans and increase surveillance of patients for heat-related illnesses. But labor unions in Paris complain that working conditions for the medical staff are unlivable.

The health ministry said so far the strike in private clinics has not endangered any patients. It began Monday to publicize rising malpractice insurance rates and other issues. But most staff remained at work and emergency cases have been transferred to public hospitals.

Meanwhile, various ministers are publicizing daily visits to prisons, work sites and other hot spots to show they are on the case this time.

A state of alert regarding the heat and ozone levels was in effect for more than half of the country. The national weather service was predicting a slight, and probably temporary, respite on Thursday.

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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