PARIS (Reuters)–France said on Thursday the recent heat wave may have killed up to 3,000 people as it put its health service on an emergency footing.
"I think we can now qualify what is happening as a genuine epidemic," Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei said on France interstate radio.
The government–criticized for failing to act quickly–recalled medical staff from holidays under an emergency plan designed to deal with nuclear disasters.
Hospitals set up refrigerated tents to house victims of the heat wave–which has seen temperatures top 40 degrees Celsius (104.00F).
The national health authority–part of the health ministry–said in a statement the death toll estimate of 3,000 included people killed directly and indirectly by the heat wave since July 25 and was based on extrapolation from figures for Paris.
Victims were mainly elderly people with heat-related conditions–such as hyperthermia and dehydration.
"Some were seriously ill anyway and the heat accelerated their illness," a health authority official said.
The French toll has already exceeded the 2,600 who died in a 1998 heat wave in India. A killer heat wave in Chicago claimed more than 500 lives in 1995 and there were 900 heat-related deaths in Athens in 1987.
Death toll figures from the current heat wave were far lower in countries neighboring France. It was not clear whether that was due to different ways of registering the cause of death.
In Italy–doctors said some 70 people had died indirectly in recent days from the heat with temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius.
"Perhaps the Italians were better prepared," said the official at the French health authority–who asked not to be named. "We’re not used to such heat in Paris."
In Germany–there were no official figures for heat-related deaths. However–Deutsche Post said two postmen–both over 40–collapsed and died while delivering mail during the past week.
French undertakers have seen a 37 percent increase in business from August 6-12 compared to the same period last year–the health authority said.
They were set to work on Friday–a national holiday–when most of them would normally have been closed.
Mattei said the extended holiday weekend would be difficult–even though forecasters predicted the worst of the heat was over.
Despite a reputation for one of the world’s best health services–France was caught unprepared by the heat wave–as much of the medical staff was on holiday.
Opposition politicians have accused the government of failing to tackle a crisis in the health service during the holiday season–but Mattei said he would not resign.
Temperatures eased across France but remained high–registering about 31 degrees Celsius in Paris compared to around 40 degrees Celsius in recent days.
"The heat wave is over," forecaster Meteo France’s Patrick Galois said.
Elsewhere in Europe–a Portuguese firefighter died on Wednesday–the sixteenth victim in a wave of forest fires–authorities said.
In central Switzerland–some 260 people were evacuated from their homes late on Wednesday after a forest fire broke out on mountain slopes near Leuk. Poland banned access to many forests in five of its 16 provinces.