Online UpdatePhysical and Mental Illness: HSC Professors Discuss Yet Another Threat for Hurricane Katrina Victims

In addition to the damage Hurricane Katrina has caused to homes, businesses and other structures in the Louisiana area, residents of the southern states on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico face serious issues detrimental to their mental and physical health.

“The acute issue right now is this massive displacement, no homes to go back to,” said Dr. Ron Warner, and epidemiologist at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.

Above the many possible communicable diseases hurricane victims may face now and during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Warner said he believes the mental impact of the storm will be the most significant.

“I think it’s mental anguish and stress that’s going to be the issue that folks will have to deal with,” he said.

Separation from family members and the stress associated with being stranded in rising floodwaters, Warner said, will leave a lasting impression on hurricane victims.

“It’s not going to be resolved any time soon,” he said.

Displacement is also a problem, Warner said, because besides being without basic needs like shelter, food and clean water, those on regular prescription schedules are unable to reach medicines needed to sustain health.

“Anybody that depends on routine health care delivery . . . that’s all wiped out,” he said.

Hurricane victims are not able to accomplish basic hygiene, Warner said, increasing the risk of infectious disease.

Diseases Hurricane Katrina victims face because of the surrounding flood waters, which have broken sewer lines around the city, include typhoid and other stomach bacteria like hepatitis A, norovirus and leptospires, Warner said.

Standing water in all parts of the hurricane-hit South may also cause a higher risk of West Nile virus.

Norovirus, an intestinal virus, is caused by bacteria associated with sewage and is common among humans, Warner said. Leptospires are spread from animals to humans through soil and mud.

Warner said the risk of norovirus will be the highest in housing and commercial areas, whereas leptospires will most likely contaminate waters flooding rural areas.

“I’m sure these (bacteria) are in these waters,” he said.

Tetanus is another organism contaminating the streets flooded in the South, Warner said. Tetanus is found in soil, and when in muddy water, the organisms form spores.

Walking in muddy, tetanus-filled water with open wounds, Warner said, opens hurricane victims to the risk of being infected with tetanus.

After the Asian tsunami, Warner said, the number of tetanus cases in Asia increased. However, he said he does not expect tetanus numbers to rise in the U. S. because a greater number of people in the U.S. population have been immunized against tetanus.

Stranded house pets in the South have been exposed to the same threat of disease, Warner said, but are not at greater danger than their owners.

“The animals are going to fare better than the humans,” he said.

Organizations such as the American Red Cross, The Salvation Army and The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have sent manpower, supplies, mobile food units, and set up distribution centers and warehouses to aid hurricane victims in the South.