The Real Health Effects of Hurricane Gustav

While Hurricane Gustav did not pack the same punch as Katrina, its effects have been felt by many across the state of Louisiana, especially those who are ill.

Governor Bobby Jindal, speaking at a news conference Tuesday, said that hundreds of patients had to be evacuated from Louisiana hospitals, including more than 50 patients who were evacuated from two small community hospitals in central Louisiana after the storm knocked out their generators. He said up to 1,400 more may have to be evacuated in the coming days from nursing homes and hospitals.

Two Baton Rouge, La. hospitals, Our Lady of the Lakes and Baton Rouge General Hospital, were feeling the effects of Hurricane Gustav Monday afternoon, managing editor, Dr. Manny Alvarez said.

Alvarez, who spoke to officials at both hospitals, said they were without power, but able to continue caring for patients.

"This is an area that didn't really feel the effects of Katrina, but they are feeling Gustav," he said. "They are without power and using emergency generators, which will last them for about two days."

Jindal said most hospitals and nursing homes have a 3- to 4-day supply of fuel for their generators and efforts are underway to send more fuel to facilities in need.

Alvarez talked about the short- and long-term health effects that residents will face in the aftermath:

1. Exposure to toxic contaminants. As adults and children crowd into homes and shelters, one of the biggest threats is exposure to toxic substances such as carbon monoxide, Alvarez said.

This threat stems from the use of indoor portable generators, charcoal grills, or camp stoves during power outages.

“One has to be careful because carbon monoxide is a silent killer,” Alvarez said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 51 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning, including five deaths, in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is hard to diagnose but known symptoms include headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion, according to the CDC.

It should be noted that medical experts recommend not using devices powered by charcoal, gasoline and kerosene indoors. These devices should only be used in well-ventilated areas.

2. Increased risk for West Nile virus. Louisiana and other Gulf Coast regions are hotbeds for this mosquito-borne illness. And the standing water left after a hurricane is breeding ground for mosquitoes and only leaves residents more vulnerable to this potentially fatal virus, Alvarez said.

“The disease has the potential to effect dozens of people after the hurricane, possibly killing some,” he said.

The CDC reported a 2-fold increase in West Nile cases in the Gulf Coast region following Hurricane Katrina.

West Nile is transmitted through the mosquito bites. There is no vaccine. The disease is usually symptomless but can result in encephalitis or swelling of the brain, which can be fatal. Residents who remain in the Gulf Coast region following Gustav should remove any pools of standing water from their living areas and use mosquito repellent to minimize their chances of being bitten.

3. Contaminated water. The flooding caused by Hurricane Gustav has the potential contaminate water supplies with fecal matter. Drinking and bathing in water contaminated with fecal matter can result in the spread of e. coli and the norovirus, which can result in diarrhea, stomach cramping, nausea and dehydration.

Residents should only drink bottled water. Tap water can be disinfected by adding 1/8 teaspoon unscented chlorine bleach per gallon of clear water or 1/4 teaspoon per gallon of cloudy water. Toys and other items that come into contact with contaminated water should be disinfected before use. Alcohol-based sanitizers may be used to clean hands in absence of clean tap water.

4. Mental health. Many residents in the Gulf Coast are experiencing the effects of a hurricane for the second time in three years.

“Depression is still a chronic public health issue for residents who experienced the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina,” he said. “And this is something that really needs to be monitored this time around.”

Residents, especially children, should be watched and provided with medical assistance for symptoms of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, Alvarez said.

5. Child asthma. The high winds of Hurricane Gustav will cause both toxic and non-toxic chemicals and gases to fill the air around the Gulf Coast. This can be especially harmful to children who suffer from asthma. Alavarez recommended that parents and rescue workers monitor children for signs of asthma and to ensure that asthma medication is readily available to youths.