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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 August, 2003, 17:01 GMT 18:01 UK
'We were not at all prepared'

By Alexandra Fouché
BBC News Online

With temperatures soaring above the 40C mark over a two-week period, France's poorly-prepared hospitals never stood a chance.

That is the view of Dr Muriel Chaillet, of the A&E department at Saint Antoine Hospital in Paris, who says the 3,000 deaths estimated by the government could be blamed partly on an ageing population, but partly on the state of the French NHS.

Woman in Paris hospital
Older people have been the main victims of the heatwave
"The figures panic me, but they do not surprise me; they correspond to the situation," she told BBC News Online.

"Last summer, the situation was catastrophic and this year it is worse; we were not at all prepared. The hospital system is failing," she said.

The heatwave is only making existing problems worse, Dr Chaillet said.

"Every day we have had deaths. We have probably seen some 30 deaths [due to the heat] this week at the hospital as a whole," she said.

Those most at risk are older people living on their own.

"Older people are more vulnerable. We have mainly seen people of 70, 80 and even 95 years old, who are more sensitive to the heat," she says.

"They don't have the reflex to drink, they get a bit confused, disoriented; it's a vicious circle."

Hospitals inundated

They may have been left behind by their holidaying families or the caretaker who may normally check on them may also have left town.

If they fall ill, they have to hope that their neighbour will notice their absence and call the firefighters to come and break down the door to take them to hospital.

Saint Antoine Hospital in Paris

Of course not everyone may be this lucky.

Some people may have died outside the hospital system - in old people's homes or alone in their own home - which has led some observers to speculate that the official figures may be vastly underestimated.

When they do reach hospital, patients suffer mainly from dehydration, respiratory problems and hyperthermia - where body temperature is 40C-42C, Dr Chaillet said.

"In some cases, we have to admit them for up to three days to treat them. The problems we normally have during the summer are accentuated as a result."

The number of patients with these symptoms is so unusual that it is in itself an indication that they are caused by the heatwave, Dr Chaillet said.

'Too late'

Last year, Saint Antoine Hospital was already groaning under the combined pressure of staff shortage because of the 35-hour working week and summer holidays.

Wards closed during the summer period, reducing the number of beds available, and the general problem of recruiting staff did not help either.

But unlike last summer, this year other hospitals in Paris have been able to help.

"Thankfully other hospitals pulled together to help us out and offer extra beds outside our own hospital. But we still had to work twice as hard to cope."

The ventilators we ordered four days ago only arrived today - it's too late
Dr Muriel Chaillet
Dr Chaillet welcomed the emergency plan announced by the government on Wednesday night, but said it was too little too late.

"Plan Blanc [the emergency plan] will allow us to open some beds and mobilise extra staff available to work in the Paris region.

"The plan's effect was immediate. This morning we have many fewer patients than we had on the other days. But it's too late, it should have been done days ago."

"The ventilators we ordered four days ago only arrived today - it's too late."

The BBC's Alan Little reports from Paris
"Doctors say it has taken far too long for the government to wake up to this crisis"

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