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August 31, 2005

Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina Poses Major Public Health Threat

Topics: Medicine

From Medpage Today, we have the foreboding "Action Points" for physicians in the hurricane-affected area, perhaps a harbinger of things to come:

If you have contact with patients in the Gulf Coast region devastated by this week's Hurricane Katrina, take note that it has been officially declared a public health emergency by the U.S. government.

Advise patients not to consume flood water or spoiled food. Both may pose infection risk. If unable to obtain bottled water, the CDC advises flood victims who have power to boil tap water and treat it with chlorine to reduce infection risk.

Be aware that patients affected by Hurricane Katrina and who have chronic conditions may not have access to the medications they need.

With that brief introduction to the major health threat facing the Gulf area, the article offers a stark reminder of just how serious the health problems can become, sooner rather than later!

We are gravely concerned about the potential for cholera, typhoid, and dehydrating diseases that could come as a result of the stagnant water and the conditions," Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said at a press conference here today to formally declare the Gulf Coast region as a public health emergency.

The mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, said the death toll is uncertain, but he estimated that it could be hundreds or even thousands. "We know there is a significant number of bodies in the water." Casualty counts from Biloxi and other Gulf Coast communities have not yet been made available.

In addition to cholera and typhoid, officials are concerned about other bacterial and parasitic infections, such as salmonella, E. coli, cryptosporidiosis, or strongyloidiasis, to name a few, said Roger Lewis, Ph.D., an associate professor and director of the Environmental Health Laboratory at Saint Louis University School of Public Health in Missouri.

"A lot of these microorganisms that would be flushed into the ocean or rivers are now sitting in a stagnant pool," Dr. Lewis said in an interview. The lack of sanitation in New Orleans and other flooded communities poses a major health risk. "All this fecal matter can really produce an incredible amount of pathogenic microorganisms."

Even fecal matter from the dead can pose a health risk. Typically, a decomposing body does not pose a health risk. However, Dr. Lewis said, there could be a potential threat if the dead cannot be located and collected quickly and if the decomposing body had a virulent infection at the time of death. Rescue workers who come into contact with the dead, Dr. Lewis said, and are unaware of any infection, could be susceptible.

Mosquito-borne illnesses, including West Nile, malaria, dengue, and even yellow fever, are concerns now given the extensive amount of still water throughout the hot and humid Gulf Coast where temperatures are in the 90s, Dr. Lewis said. How quickly officials can get some of this water drained, he added, could help minimize the risk of potential mosquito-borne illness outbreaks.

As the threat of injury and infection looms, the military is rushing aid by land, air, and sea to help provide medical services to a region whose hospital systems were severely crippled by the storm. Federal health officials are also working to get emergency and first aid supplies to the region.

However, Gulf Coast residents who have chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart disease and are unable to get their medications may still be at risk, and it's uncertain whether there will be sufficient supplies or the means to get these supplies through flooded communities to help these residents.

One major health risk that is not as obvious as infection or injury is psychological trauma


It doesn't take too much reading between the lines to realize that much much worse than what is described above could indeed occur. We are facing a potential health crisis in the Gulf region, particularly in New Orleans, that could make the clean up problems pale in comparison to the health issues.
Navy Hospital Ship Comfort to Head for New Orleans

Posted by Richard at August 31, 2005 11:34 PM

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