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Senior French Health Official Resigns Over Heat Wave Crisis - 2003-08-18

A senior health official in France, Lucien Abenhaim, has resigned after his office came under strong criticism for its performance during the recent heat wave that claimed thousands of lives.

Mr. Abenhaim said he was stepping down because of criticism of the way the government handled the recent heat wave. He made the announcement in a letter to France's health minister.

Mr. Abenhaim's office has been criticized for failing to notify the government about the wave of deaths from the severe heat. Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei told French RTL radio Monday it is plausible that as many as 5,000 people, many of them elderly, may have died as a result of the sweltering heat. He said the final toll may not be known for several weeks.

His statement comes only one day after he said the deal toll should not go beyond 1,600 to 3,000. He also said that the government was not alerted as early as it should have been, and did not have the information it needed. But critics say weather forecasts were alarming enough to warrant the issuance of public warnings.

France has suffered through several weeks of severe heat that began in late July, with temperatures hitting 40 degrees Celsius in parts of the country. There were so many deaths from the heat that funeral parlors struggled to cope and health authorities had to put several hundred bodies in an unused storage facility at a farmers' market near Paris.

The heat also sparked forest fires, sending giant clouds of smoke over resort areas, and special water-carrying planes were used to fight the inferno. Last week France called back medical staff from vacation under an emergency plan designed to handle terrorist attacks, natural disasters or epidemics. The disaster prompted Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin to cut his vacation short for an emergency meeting last week.

Temperatures declined over the weekend, but hospitals remain on alert.