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Infectious Disease

Diseases and illnesses common after major hurricanes

Hurricane Sandy 14th St.jpg

Vehicles are submerged on 14th Street near the Consolidated Edison power plant, Monday, Oct. 29, 2012, in New York. (AP Photo/ John Minchillo) (AP2012)

While its most devastating winds and waters have begun to subside, Sandy will continue to impact residents along the East Coast, making people susceptible to a number of diseases and illnesses.

Flooding is a particular threat, particularly if floodwaters seep into the main water supply.  That’s why people are always urged to stock up on bottled water during storm preparations.

“A lot of times, the tap water is breached by sewer water, by the ocean water or just the run-off from the street,” Dr. Michael Lucchesi, chief medical officer for SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, told FoxNews.com.  “In New Jersey, there was a warning that people should not drink or use the tap water, because that was breeched.  The health departments usually put out a notification about that.”

But the likelihood of widespread outbreaks from infectious disease after a hurricane is rather low, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Exotic diseases not common in the United States - such as cholera or typhoid - will not suddenly emerge after a storm.  Outbreaks that do occur would typically be from diseases already in the area before the hurricane hit. 

However, infections can still be a problem - especially if harmful bacteria enter a break in the skin.   

“A lot of trees are down, and people could get injured with scrapes and cuts -- and there’s danger in that,” Lucchesi said.  “If people go out and are trying to take care of their car or assess damage, and they get an abrasion or cut, they need to wash it out thoroughly.  People can get infections, from necrotizing fasciitis (or tetanus), all sorts of things when people aren’t properly taking care of their wounds.  If you sustain a cut, you have to attend to that immediately – soap and water would be just fine.”

Apart from infections, the CDC said that diarrhea, stomach issues and colds could potentially be on the rise for the Northeast within the next couple of weeks.  In order to lower chances of contracting gastro-intestinal illnesses, people need to be careful about what they eat.  For those who have lost power, refrigerators may have dropped to room temperature – resulting in spoiled food.  In those cases, fridge contents should be disposed of.

Not only are illnesses of the digestive system a concern, but there’s another system that could be affected – the respiratory system.

“I’m working in the ER today, and we’re getting plenty of people coming in with respiratory issues,” Lucchesi said. “This is because of the wind bringing up all of the mold and contaminants that would normally be on the ground. We’re getting a lot of asthmatics, people with emphysema and bronchitis.  Almost all our patients are people who missed their dialysis treatments yesterday or people suffering from respiratory issues.”

Rats and other rodents are also carries of bacteria. “Rodents do very well in the water, but you might see a lot of them with garbage on the street,” Lucchesi said. “And because of downed trees, it might be a while before the sanitation department can pick up garbage left outside.  You might see a lot of rodents feeding, so you could see an increase in any rodent-borne diseases.  They defecate and their feces can have all types of bacterial illnesses, gastrointestinal illness.  They spread disease from one contaminated source of food to another, so they spread the source of the disease very efficiently.”

Lucchesi cautioned people not to panic and to call 911 sparingly, leaving those services for life-threatening emergencies.

Click for more hurricane-related disease information from the CDC.

Click for more information from the New York Department of Health.

Click for more information from the New Jersey Department of Health.