Assessing the Short-Term Health Effects of Hurricane Ike

While the health and well-being of residents in Texas and Louisiana following Hurricane Ike appears better than expected, residual health effects may cause harm in the days and weeks to come, said Dr. Manny Alvarez, managing editor.

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With power out in much of the Houston and Galveston region, and with Galveston residents left with no running water and cell phone service, residents are facing several health issues.

These include:

1. Exposure to toxic contaminants. As evacuees 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, Texas 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 affect dozens of people after the hurricane, possibly killing some,” he said.

The CDC reported a two-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 Ike 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 Ike 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 reliving the trauma of a major hurricane for the second time since Labor Day. Couple that, with the stress people are still feeling from Katrina and depression could became a major public health problem.

“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 Ike 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 ensure that asthma medication is readily available to youths.