Health Risk From Katrina May Last for Weeks

Intestinal disease, West Nile and rabies are all potential threats

TUESDAY, Aug. 30, 2005 (HealthDayNews) -- In the aftermath of one of the worst hurricanes in U.S. history, massive flooding along the Gulf Coast could turn the affected areas into a breeding ground for a variety of serious health problems, hurricane experts said Tuesday.

"Nobody should come back to New Orleans for a week," said Ivor van Heerden, the director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center in Baton Rouge. "They wouldn't be able to get to their homes. There's no food, there's no water, and anybody coming home would be entering a wilderness."

[Late Tuesday, the governor of Louisiana said New Orleans' remaining residents and those in storm shelters and the Superdome would have to be evacuated because of rising storm waters and a situation she called "untenable" and "heartbreaking," according to the Associated Press.]

Among the potential health problems left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's landfall along the Gulf Coast Monday are intestinal diseases from contaminated drinking water and sewage overflow.

"We know New Orleans is having problems with its drinking water supply," van Heerden said. "They've lost pressure. That means it is not a contained system."

And because the city lies below sea level and depends on a network of pumps, canals and levees, some of which have already failed, there is also the potential that untreated sewage has gotten into the water system, van Heerden added.

"They are trying right now to get the drainage pumps operational," he said. "They have to repair some of the pumps and pump stations.

There is also the possibility that chemicals have polluted the water system. "We are not sure right now what chemicals are there," van Heerden said. "We have had reports of gasoline smells in some areas."

In addition, floating debris, which can block the drainage canals and foul pumps is going to make reducing the flooding very difficult, van Heerden added.

"New Orleans looks like a war zone, so there's debris everywhere," he said.

In addition to these problems, there is also the potential risk of an increase in West Nile infections throught the hardest-hit areas, which stretch east through Biloxi and the Gulfport areas in Mississippi to Alabama and the panhandle of Florida, van Heerden said.

"Very shortly, we will see a fairly dramatic increase in the number of mosquitoes," he said. "We are at the heart of our West Nile fever season, so there could well be a dramatic increase in the infection rate."

An increase in exposure rabies is also a potential threat left by the storm.

"A lot of wildlife is infected, especially raccoons. They, like humans, have been displaced from their homes, and are looking for shelter, and there is the potential of humans or their pets being bitten by these rabies infected animals," van Heerden said.

van Heerden also noted that there have been reports of natural gas leaks, and there is also the potential of leaks from chemical plants and pipelines.

In addition to these problems, van Heerden said that there will be an increase in trauma-related injuries. "For example, people falling off ladders, electrocuting themselves and those who get hurt scrambling around their homes, all that increases the potential of tetanus."

By Tuesday afternoon, with rescue crews only beginning to reach the most seriously affected areas, estimates of fatalities remained speculative at best, ranging from 50 to 80. But the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Mississippi both estimated that the toll would rise.

Among the current relief efforts, according to news reports:

  • Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt announced he is making available the department's full complement of emergency response assets and resources to states, municipalities, hospitals and others in need of public health assistance.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) positioned 23 disaster medical assistance teams and seven search and rescue teams around the stricken region.
  • FEMA also delivered generators, tarps and stockpiles of water, ice and ready-to-eat meals, according to agency officials. And the agency has 500 truckloads of ice, 500 truckloads of water and 350 truckloads of meals available to distribute over the next 10 days.
  • The American Red Cross, in what it called one of the largest emergency operations in its history, opened 239 shelters by Monday night and sent 166 emergency response vehicles and thousands of volunteers to the stricken area, according to spokeswoman Renita Hosler.
  • Private relief agencies, including the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Fund and Spirit of America, a humanitarian group, moved in mobile kitchens and had prepared more than a half million hot meals for storm evacuees by Monday night.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency dispatched emergency crews to Louisiana and Texas because of concern about oil and chemical spills.
  • The Agriculture Department said its Food and Nutrition Service would provide meals and other commodities, such as infant formula, distilled water for babies and emergency food stamps.
  • And HHS has sent 38 doctors and nurses to Jackson, Miss., to be used where needed, and 30 pallets of medical supplies to the Gulf Coast, including first aid materials, sterile gloves and oxygen tanks.

More information

The World Health Organization can tell you more about health risks from flooding.

SOURCES: Ivor van Heerden, Ph.D., director, Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, Baton Rouge; wire service reports
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