Ho  /  AFP - Getty Images
A man carries a baby through the flooded streets of New Orleans near the Superdome on Wednesday. Experts say floodwaters can be polluted with bacteria, viruses and chemicals that pose health hazards.
By MSNBC contributor
updated 9/1/2005 7:22:08 PM ET 2005-09-01T23:22:08

As people in New Orleans struggle with the immediate health concerns of getting clean drinking water, food, and life-sustaining medicines and treatments, many will face additional threats to their well-being in the days and weeks ahead, doctors and infectious disease experts say.

People with chronic illnesses like diabetes and high blood pressure who don't get the medications they need to keep their conditions under control could be at risk for heart attacks and strokes as their health deteriorates. Those with allergies, asthma or other chronic lung disorders could have more trouble breathing from airborne irritants, and later on, from mold that develops in homes and buildings.

"Routine diseases just get worse in any type of condition like this," says Dr. Don Herip, a public health specialist at Palomar Pomerado Health Systems in San Diego who helped with military medical relief during Hurricane Andrew in Florida.

And besides the huge emotional toll that Hurricane Katrina is taking, anyone residing in flooded areas runs the risks associated with polluted, stagnant water, including various water-borne diseases and an expected bumper crop of virus-transmitting mosquitoes.

Dirty, dangerous water
"That water is dirty and dangerous, with bacteria and viruses and chemicals," says Dr. Jeffrey Starke, director of infection control at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, which he says is helping with the medical care of flood victims bused to the Astrodome.

Not drinking the water is critical for avoiding various viral and bacterial illnesses. Among the germs to be concerned about are E. coli and salmonella, which can cause acute gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea.

But skin infections that develop in cuts, scrapes, insect bites and blisters are another big concern, according to Starke. "These can easily get infected, especially from the flood waters," he says.

With no soap and clean water to cleanse the wounds, and no antibiotic ointment or bandages, the risks increase. "Skin infections can get pretty doggoned bad," he says. In severe cases, bacteria that enters the bloodstream can cause serious infections throughout the body. Sunburns hike the risk of infection as well.

People huddled together in crowded shelters are particularly at risk from disease spread, such as infection with agents like the Norwalk virus, which has sickened people on several cruise ships, says Dr. Paul Eder, an infectious disease specialist at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore.

"If one person gets it, it starts spreading like wildfire," he says.

Other diseases that could quickly spread in crowded conditions include measles, rubella, chickenpox and tuberculosis, experts say.

Infections with hepatitis, though, may not become evident for much longer. "The effect of these viruses wouldn't show up for weeks or months later," says Starke.

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Insects, animals pose threat
The floodwaters and debris can also fuel populations of insects that can spread disease. Flies can transmit bacteria like salmonella from their feet to people's faces or food, notes Herip.

And within "a matter of days or a week" increased numbers of mosquitoes could prompt greater spread of West Nile virus, says Dr. Lyle Vogel, a veterinarian and director of the scientific activities division of the American Veterinary Medical Association in Schaumburg, Ill.

Pools of waters also could be contaminated with bacteria from animal urine that can cause a condition known as leptospirosis, he says, which can lead to flu-like symptoms, jaundice and in severe cases, meningitis.

Another threat, though probably not a big one, is rabies, which could be transmitted through bites from animals such as skunks, says Vogel.

Bites from poisonous snakes, and of course, alligator attacks are also a concern.

As people return to their homes or what's left of them, they could run the risk of electrocution, and injuries from rusty nails and other hazards as they attempt repairs, says Herip. Damp walls could encourage the growth of mold that spurs allergies and other breathing troubles.

Mental toll
But one of the greatest effects of Katrina for many people will be the lasting emotional toll, experts say.

Besides the initial shock of the disaster, people will suffer from lack of sleep and they'll be worried about their homes, jobs and school and struggling to put their lives back together, says Herip.

"Each of these stress points are added onto each other," he says, "and the psychological impact is going to be huge."

Starke says the emotional impact may not hit the hardest for weeks or longer.

"It's not unusual for post-traumatic stress disorder to not kick in for a few weeks to even a few months," he says.

© 2013


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