A shelter for hurricane evacuees was closed Sunday, Sept. 4, after more than 20 people fell ill in what could be an early sign of a public health crisis in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Officials at the Biloxi, Miss., shelter suspected that those showing symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea had contracted dysentery — a painful, sometimes fatal intestinal disease — from fetid standing water.
“Who knows what they swallowed before they got here,” said Biloxi police Corporal Kayla Robert.
In addition to the risk of dehydration, health experts are warning of numerous potential illnesses refugees in New Orleans and the shelters around the region could be exposed to. Some, like hepatitis and salmonella, could lurk in contaminated water. Others, such as West Nile virus, could be transmitted by mosquitoes that thrive in stagnant waters.
“We have the potential for a crop of diseases we haven’t seen in years,” said Dr. Richard deShazo, head of the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
Michael Leavitt, U.S. secretary of health and human services, left Washington for the Gulf region on Sept. 4 with a team of health and social service leaders. “We have the ingredients for a bad situation there,” Leavitt said on CNN Sunday, Sept. 4.
Leavitt was criticized after he said on Wednesday, Aug. 31, that officials were “gravely concerned about the potential for cholera, typhoid …”
Some experts say those diseases rarely suddenly appear in flood regions where they didn’t exist before. But who knows what diseases lurked in the slums of New Orleans and Biloxi?
The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta have moved quickly to dispel some of the misinformation regarding the health risks in the hurricane’s aftermath. Chief among those was Mayor Ray Nagin’s assertion on CNN Sunday that mosquitoes feeding on dead people would spread disease. As the CDC was quick to note, mosquitoes feed on blood, which requires a living organism.
According to the CDC, dead bodies pose little health risk, and diseases like cholera and typhoid are unlikely to erupt in the Gulf region. Let’s hope they are right.