Biggest Health Worry after Katrina is Clean Water
WASHINGTON A lack of clean water is the most immediate health threat posed by the murky green water flooding Louisiana and Mississippi, health experts warned Wednesday as authorities declared a public health emergency after Hurricane Katrina's devastation.
Even apparently clean water is likely to be contaminated, and food will become spoiled and dangerous very soon in the summer heat, officials said.
"This afternoon, I've declared a public health emergency for the entire Gulf region. That will have the effect of dramatically simplifying and accelerating the procedures necessary to expedite emergency actions," Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt told a news conference.
"We are gravely concerned about the potential for cholera, typhoid and dehydrating diseases that can come as a result of the stagnant water and conditions."
The flood destroyed sewage systems, and may have washed toxic chemicals and agricultural products into the mix.
"The biggest problem is the sewage contamination of the water," said Dr. Glenn Morris, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Maryland Medical School in Baltimore.
"Just simply splashing around in the water, if there is sewage contamination there is a risk you could get it onto your hands and get it into your mouth," Morris added in a telephone interview.
Viruses such a hepatitis A could be a threat, said Morris. Experts worried about bacteria such as Vibrio cholera, which causes cholera, enterococci and dangerous strains of E. coli.
"I think the biggest problem is going to be the drinking water supply," said Dr. Alan Decho, a microbiologist at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
"It is not under pressure now and any time that happens, the surrounding water could seep into the water pipes and contaminate things," Decho said in a telephone interview.
A little bit of bleach will kill bacteria and viruses in water but not parasites, nor will it remove toxic chemicals. Boiling will kill living contaminants.
Most deaths after a disaster such as a hurricane come when people try to get back into their houses and are electrocuted or hurt by debris, experts said.
NO THREAT FROM THE DEAD
But despite traditional fears about unburied bodies, the remains of the dead will pose no immediate threat to health, although they may later.
"Diseases are caused by viruses and bacteria. If the body doesn't happen to have those viruses or bacteria, then the risk is less," Morris said.
"If you are talking about people who have drowned or if they have died of trauma, then there is much less likelihood that they might serve as a source of contamination."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued warnings about food.
"Perishable food such as meat, poultry, seafood, milk and eggs that are not properly refrigerated or frozen may cause illness if consumed, even when it is thoroughly cooked," the FDA said in a statement.
"Do not eat any food that may have come into contact with flood water," it added. Medicines also may be contaminated by flood water.
Mosquitoes are not an immediate threat but may be later on, health officials said.
But there is little danger of new infections such as malaria, Morris added. "You have to have somebody who is infected with the illness to infect the mosquito," he said.
Leavitt said his department was sending in medical supplies and field hospitals hurricane victims and patients evacuated from flooded or damaged hospitals.
HHS said Louisiana state officials have received 27 pallets of medical supplies from the Strategic National Stockpile, including bandages, ice packs, blanket, sterile gloves, and stethoscopes.
"We are ... erecting a network of up to 40 medical shelters," Leavitt said. There will be 10,000 beds and 4,000 medical staff, he said.
HHS had found 2,600 hospital beds in the surrounding states and 40,000 nationwide that could be used.
A final concern -- generators. Experts said carbon monoxide poisoning from generators was a threat after such disasters.