Page last updated at 13:02 GMT, Saturday, 13 December 2008

A curiously French complaint

BY Emma Jane Kirby
BBC News, Paris

When I was a student, living in Avignon in the south of France, I remember waking up one morning shortly before Christmas, feeling shivery and as if someone had spent the night sandpapering my throat.

A woman sneezing
The French take any signs of illness very seriously

After a couple of days of wheezing and coughing, I took myself to the doctor and explained that I was feeling a bit ropey.

One hour later I had been diagnosed with a severe lung infection, mild asthma and had in my hand a prescription for six different types of medicine, an appointment at the local hospital's radiology department and an emergency referral to a specialist in pulmonary disease.

The next day I flew home to the UK for the Christmas holidays where my worried parents persuaded me to visit their local GP for a second opinion.

After five minutes in his consulting room, I emerged empty-handed but with a new diagnosis. I had… a cold.

Hardening attitudes

I am not suggesting that the French are a nation of hypochondriacs but they do take their health very seriously.

France is the biggest consumer of antibiotics in Europe. The government has recently tried to wean the country off its dependency with a series of TV advertisements which reassure the ailing that they do not always need drugs.

On the metro, disease hangs thickly in the warm air, and people eye one another warily, sizing up which passenger is likely to be carrying the plague before choosing their seat
A Parisian GP I know, Dr Auber, believes that France enjoys a reputation for having such a great health service simply because its doctors routinely prescribe more medicines.

Now he says they are "Anglicising" the system, turning away from the indulgent "There, there" approach and moving towards a much more "Get along with you now" stiff upper lip attitude.

It is not going down too well.

Dr Auber claims that many of his patients are deeply disappointed if they do not get a prescription after a visit to his practice and he is quite sure that many go off mumbling that he has not bothered to treat them.

Worried well

With the current cold snap here, everyone is feeling pretty grotty and congested.

Even the sky looks bunged up and it is continually snivelling and spluttering sleet onto the Parisians who in turn are sneezing and rasping into handkerchiefs.

On the Metro, disease hangs thickly in the warm air, and people eye one another warily, sizing up which passenger is likely to be carrying the plague, before choosing their seat and tightening the protective scarves around their throats.

At least they have their medicines to console them.

Dr Auber told me that a French colleague of his, who recently moved to join a surgery in London, was staggered to see her British colleagues telling patients complaining of blocked ears, to just go home and pour olive oil into them.

Pharmacy in Paris
There is a range of treatments available for heavy legs

In France she said, her patients would have demanded a medical prescription to shift the unwanted wax and she would have felt obliged to write one out.

French malady

But while stuffed-up orifices may be a common symptom on both sides of the Channel, there is one disease that only the Gallic appear susceptible to, and in fact, according to Dr Auber, it is one of the illnesses French people complain about most.

Correct me if I am wrong, but have you ever heard a British person complain they are suffering from "heavy legs"?

Fascinated by a malady to which British people appear immune, I went to my local pharmacy and asked the smiling young chemist if she could advise me on remedies for heavy legs.

"Oh, bad luck," she said indicating two entire shelves of pills and potions. "Do you get heavy legs in the winter too? I only suffer from them in the summer," and she handed me a cream with "real grape seeds", assuring me it was very effective when rubbed vigorously twice daily from the ankle to the knee.

I have often wondered if one can get signed off work with heavy legs. I am almost tempted to call my editor to try out the scenario.

"Oh yeah hi, it's Emma Jane. Look I'm really sorry but I'm not going to make it in today - I'm afraid I've got heavy legs again."

The French consume more than a third of the entire world's supply of heavy legs medicines
Unfortunately, my boss is a regular listener to this programme, so by now he will be aware of my British immunity to the illness and would presumably tell me to hop it.

Dr Auber confirms that British people simply do not suffer from this mysterious weightiness of the lower limbs, and adds that the French consume more than a third of the entire world's supply of heavy legs medicines.

Curiously though, he has noticed that since the French health insurance companies stopped paying for heavy legs remedies a couple of years ago, consumption of these products is now one-tenth what it used to be.

Emergency treatment

A couple of years back, while skiing in the Alps after a tiring stint in Afghanistan, I noticed my legs were covered in small red spots and I was feeling lethargic. Could I finally have contracted the elusive heavy legs syndrome?

Map of France
"No!" said the alarmed French doctor, "you have a tropical illness and you need to go straight to hospital."

Laughing to myself at the typical Gallic solicitousness, I popped a Paracetamol and headed straight back to the slopes.

Two days later, delirious with fever and covered in enormous black lumps, I was lying in the isolation unit of a London hospital, howling in pain and terrified what my test results would reveal.

Alerted by my cries, a masked nurse popped her head around the door.

"Oh for goodness sake," she said brusquely. "Anyone would think you were dying. You've only got suspected leprosy."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 13 December, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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