Sept. 6, 2005 - Federal health officials dealing with Hurricane Katrina's aftermath are now focusing on potential health threats common after disasters.
Authorities have begun to turn attention to heading off infectious diseases that can readily spread under the crowded conditions seen at many emergency shelters across Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama.
Cases of intestinal illnesses carried in contaminated food or water, as well as tuberculosis, are already under investigation by public health workers at Texas shelters and other locations, officials said Tuesday.
"We are preparing for the possibility of infectious disease that could be spread under crowded conditions in the shelters," CDC Director Julie Gerberding, MD, told reporters.
Preventing Disease Outbreaks
Government health officials are trying to emphasize adequate toilet facilities and basic hygiene practices like frequent hand washing at shelters and medical facilities, she said.
"Our purpose of course is to make sure that we do not have outbreaks of disease," said Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt.
Illnesses of concern include infection with norovirus, a highly infectious but generally nonfatal virus that spreads through personal contact and consumption of contaminated food and water. Respiratory diseases including influenza and tuberculosis are also a risk.
Gerberding said she was impressed with facilities provided at Houston's Astrodome, which has imported portable sinks and latrine facilities to serve hurricane evacuees housed there. Still, at least some communicable diseases are inevitable, she said.
"Any time you've got 24,000 people in a facility for a long period of time, you've just got to expect this," she said.
In New Orleans, which remains largely under floodwater despite the start of pumping efforts, authorities warn of the potential of raw sewage to spread disease among the remaining residents and rescue workers. Officials are also unsure whether the water inundating the city was contaminated by industrial sites or oil facilities.
"We don't know if it's containing any toxic chemicals," Gerberding said.
Officials said they are also moving to vaccinate children against measles, whooping cough, and other diseases that can spread under crowded conditions, though determining which children already have completed vaccinations has proven difficult.
Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, urged doctors and other health workers to volunteer at shelters and hospitals struggling to treat chronically ill patients left without normal medical care by the hurricane and flooding.
"There are lots of places you can go," Benjamin said. "I'm pleading with you to do so."
The American Red Cross said it had housed approximately 150,000 people in 485 shelters across the affected areas.
In Washington, lawmakers began to debate how Congress should respond to the disaster. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said that the region is facing a public health crisis.
Congress last week approved $10.5 billion in emergency spending to augment disaster relief efforts that many officials have sharply criticized as slow and inefficient.
Several Democrats said Tuesday that Congress should extend emergency Medicaid benefits to cover the cost of ongoing health treatments for people displaced by the storm. The proposal will be among many considered as lawmakers consider relief and rebuilding packages in the coming weeks.
"Right now we're open to any ideas," said Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.