Health Care

Health Concerns Follow in Katrina's Wake

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The region hammered by Hurricane Katrina faces an ongoing threat from sanitary problems and other health issues. But health authorities say there is no risk from cholera or typhoid... or even from the bodies left by the storm.


The public health response to Hurricane Katrina is moving into its second stage. Hospitals in New Orleans, for the most part, have been evacuated. The Department of Health and Human Services is about to open 10 federal medical centers at military bases in the Gulf area. The health challenges of the next few weeks are likely to be injuries and problems of access to care and infections, but maybe not the infections you'd expect. NPR's Joanne Silberner has that story.


As one of the key emergency preparedness officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Richard Besser has to think ahead.

Dr. RICHARD BESSER (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): The big issues right away are provision of safe water, safe food and injury control.

SILBERNER: The hurricane itself caused injuries, people batted about by wind and water. There are likely to be more.

Dr. BESSER: During the cleanup period, there's great risk for injury. We have many buildings that are unstable. We have people who will be doing repairs.

SILBERNER: Puncture wounds can cause tetanus. To prevent that, the CDC has shipped 30,000 doses of vaccine to the Gulf area. All that standing water is an opportunity for snakes and alligators and mosquitos. The CDC and state officials are working on mosquito abatement. They're already watching for an upswing in West Nile virus infections. In the past, chemicals and pesticides in water left by hurricanes haven't been a problem. They tend to be very dilute. Sewage contamination can spread bacteria and viruses, but Besser says only the bacteria and viruses that were around before the hurricane can cause gastrointestinal problems.

Mold could be trouble. It can cause respiratory problems in people with asthma or allergies. It can be eradicated with a solution of bleach and water. Dr. Irwin Redlener of Columbia University's National Center for Disaster Preparedness saw people who needed regular medication or treatment struggle after Hurricane Andrew. It was especially difficult for people in rural areas. And then there's mental health.

Dr. IRWIN REDLENER (National Center for Disaster Preparedness, Columbia University): There are some people who will handle the stress of a major disaster just fine. They'll need to lean on each other and neighbors helping neighbors, support from family members and people get through it. And that's the case for many, many people affected even by very terrible disasters.

SILBERNER: But others will definitely need help. Redlener says the challenge is to spot people who need professional assistance and make sure it's available. Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: And it's 18 minutes past the hour.

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