A Look At The Health Crisis In Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria
LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:
It's been a month since Hurricane Maria upended the lives of more than 3 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. The few hospitals still operational on the island are struggling to care for the sick, all at a time when many Puerto Ricans without access to safe drinking water are resorting to dangerous alternatives - contaminated water that's been exposed to toxic waste or even human waste. For a deeper insight into Puerto Rico's current health situation, We called Dr. Robert Kadlec. He's assistant secretary for preparedness and response for the Department of Health and Human Services, and he joins us on the line now. Doctor Kadlec, welcome.
ROBERT KADLEC: Thank you very much, Lakshmi.
SINGH: It has been a month since Maria struck Puerto Rico, and we're still hearing reports of large numbers of Puerto Ricans with little to no access to clean water, which means the possibility of multiple health threats. And on Thursday, we heard the state epidemiologists announce 74 suspected cases of a bacterial disease called leptospirosis. First of all, what are the symptoms that patients are showing?
KADLEC: Typically, it's a nondescript febrile illness that generally results in some myalgias, muscle pains, fever. But there are people who actually get more sick, who actually develop some organ damage. And they generally tend to be older, more vulnerable people. So right now, we've seen 74 cases, but quite frankly, this is leptospirosis season. Typically, there'll be a couple of hundred cases that is seen in the August-through-December timeframe during the rainy season Puerto Rico.
But I think the thing to realize is that, as you can imagine, in the case of Puerto Rico after this terrible storm and disruption of infrastructure where people are potentially more exposed to the risk of contaminated water - and again, it's not drinking it as much as it's basically potentially wading in it or being exposed to it and having an abrasion or laceration where it permits the bacteria to get in and actually cause the problems - it would not be surprising to see a larger number of cases than typically seen.
SINGH: Well, given the additional complications to actually treating patients who are suspected to have leptospirosis, what is the immediate response like on the ground that you know of?
KADLEC: Well, right now, we're in the midst of basically ensuring that even though it's been a month, we're definitely within - still in response mode by ensuring that we can kind of assist hospitals that may have a surge in patients. Our attempt is not only to save lives but to stabilize the infrastructure and also restore health-care services across the island.
SINGH: Dr. Kadlec, let me ask you. Reiterate for me how many personnel you have on the ground.
KADLEC: So we have right now 600 from Health and Human Services that represent intermittent federal employees which are disaster medical assistant teams, plus we have uniformed public health service officers. And we've been working closely with the Veterans Administration, who typically see veterans only but now have opened up their doors. And we work with them to see not only veterans' families but the general population. And then lastly, there are several hundred military medical personnel. So we have several thousand, if you will, federal-medical responders on the island.
SINGH: Do you anticipate a reduction in the number of personnel in the next six months to a year?
KADLEC: So the answer is, as we bring their hospital infrastructure back up where it becomes fully functional, we would probably expect that there would be a reduction of the numbers of augmentees that you would need. So whether that's three months, six months or 12 months, we're there to help our citizens, and we're committed to do so. And there will be people probably from the Veterans Administration, from Health and Human Services, from the Public Health Service and from the Department of Defense that will all be sharing in that opportunity.
SINGH: Robert Kadlec is the assistant secretary for preparedness and response for the Department of Health and Human Services. Doctor Kadlec, thank you so much for joining us.
KADLEC: Well, thank you. And I very much appreciate it. And again, we have a long way to go. And we're working hard to take care of our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico.
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