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French heat wave death toll may be higher
( 2003-08-21 09:16) (Agencies)

France's biggest funeral parlor chain said Wednesday it counted 2,600 more deaths this month than in the same period last year, raising the prospect that thousands more people died during Europe's heat wave than officials estimate.

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, whose government has come under fire for its handling of the crisis, warned about giving too much credence to early death toll estimates. The French government has said that as many as 5,000 people died, though an official count was not expected for weeks.

In Spain, meanwhile, the government said Wednesday the hot weather has killed 100 people about twice the figure given until now, but far from the thousands suggested by media reports.

The Spanish health ministry said 46 people died directly of heat stroke and 54 from heart or lung conditions that were aggravated by the heat. Until now, the death toll since early August was given as 46.

The death figures reported Wednesday by France's biggest funeral home chain OGF suggested that even the latest government estimate was too low.

Elisabeth Lichter, an OGF spokeswoman, said the chain counted 2,604 more deaths in its funeral parlors since Aug. 1 than in the same period last year.

OGF holds about 25 percent of the market, a figure it multiplied by four to estimate that there were 10,416 more deaths in France.

Shortly after OGF issued its projection, the prime minister issued a statement calling for "prudence" about vague estimates.

"Out of respect for those French people personally touched by this painful crisis, it's necessary to have a scientific study that will establish these reliable figures," Raffarin said.

"Everyone needs the truth," he added.

The government has said most victims were elderly people alone at home. Doctors say heat stroke and dehydration were often the cause of death.

Raffarin also said he had instructed Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei to assemble a panel of experts to estimate the exact number of heat-related deaths and issue a report within a month.

In a statement, OGF predicted that the death toll for the full month of August could be 13,632 more than a year ago.

The government has cited General Funeral Services, a subsidiary of OGF, as one source of information it used to come up with its estimate on the death toll.

French authorities first put the death toll in single digits, then raised it to 50. After a doctors' group said that figure was too low, the health ministry estimated last Thursday that 1,600 to 3,000 people died from heat-related causes starting on Aug. 7.

Mattei then said Monday that it was "plausible" that up to 5,000 people may have died. But he said the figure was a "hypothesis" and that a final toll was not expected for several weeks.

Temperatures have cooled considerably across France since the first two weeks of August, where parts of the country saw more than 104 degrees.

The heat wave caused morgues and funeral homes to overflow with bodies last week. Hospital hallways were jammed with patients on stretchers because there were not enough beds.

French meteorologists say the hot spell was the longest and hottest on record, and many other parts of Europe also saw record temperatures. The heat also fanned forest fires and devastated livestock.

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