WASHINGTON – Four people may have died of a waterborne bacterial infection circulating in Hurricane Katrina (search)'s flood waters, and health officials took steps Tuesday to stem spread of a diarrhea-causing virus among refugees in Houston's Astrodome.
The deaths appear to have been caused by Vibrio vulnificus (search), a germ common in warm Gulf Coast waters that's usually spread by eating contaminated food but that can penetrate open wounds, too.
The deaths — one a hurricane refugee evacuated to Texas, the other three in Mississippi — were attributed to wound infections, said Tom Skinner, spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (search), which received the reports from officials in the two states.
The reports underscore advice issued by federal health officials Tuesday: Rescue workers and anyone left in hurricane-ravaged areas should try to limit direct skin contact with flood waters; seek immediate medical attention if they have cuts or other wounds exposed to the dirty water; and wash their hands frequently.
Officials in Houston's Astrodome handed out alcohol-based hand sanitizers Tuesday to help prevent spread of norovirus, an easily spread cause of diarrhea and vomiting. Officials isolated some refugees with the illness, made infamous by recent cruise-ship outbreaks, although they couldn't provide an exact count. There is no treatment except to keep sufferers hydrated; it normally lasts a few days.
There are no large outbreaks yet attributed to the hurricane, but infection control within shelters housing thousands of evacuees is a top priority, said Dr. Julie Gerberding, CDC's director.
Wounds infected by submersion in New Orleans floodwaters tainted with raw sewage and other bacteria are common, however. Gerberding said Tuesday that another concern is whether those waters also were contaminated with toxic chemicals from hurricane damage to nearby factories.
The Environmental Protection Agency began testing what is in the water, with the first results expected by week's end.
That's a key question for a new federal task force of medical and environmental authorities who began setting up Tuesday at Kindred Hospital in New Orleans, to monitor for disease outbreaks and "begin to make judgments about when New Orleans is safe to reinhabit," said Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt.
Drinking water safety also is an issue in much of Mississippi and Louisiana and parts of Alabama, and the EPA sent a mobile laboratory to Mississippi Tuesday to help assess that. More than 1,000 drinking water systems in the three states were affected by the hurricane.
CDC's Gerberding sought to put to rest concern about disease from exposure to dead bodies in the flooding — the corpses aren't infectious — or from agents not typically seen in this country, such as cholera.
Instead, doctors are being urged to watch for more likely causes of diarrheal illnesses: E. coli bacteria (search); the easy-to-spread noroviruses that, while seldom life-threatening, can cause days of misery; or Vibrio vulnificus, cholera-like bacteria that every year kill more than a dozen Gulf Coast residents.
The deaths reported Tuesday were among elderly people or those with weak immune systems, CDC's Skinner said.
But infection isn't the biggest medical challenge, Gerberding said. Instead, it's how to care for thousands of people with chronic diseases like diabetes or kidney failure, many of them elderly patients who depend on numerous medications daily.
In Tupelo, Miss., for instance, city doctors brought sacks full of prescription drug samples to the Good Samaritan Clinic, where volunteer doctors are treating about 100 evacuees a day almost exclusively for chronic conditions, said Dr. J. Edward Hill, one of the volunteers and president of the American Medical Association.