News and Public Information
Katrina Raises Health Concerns
PAHO Director Offers Help to U.S. Health Secretary Mike Leavitt
Washington, D.C., Sept. 1, 2005 (PAHO)—Public health experts are evaluating the health impact of hurricane Katrina and its aftermath among survivors in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.
The director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Dr. Mirta Roses, today conveyed her condolences for the loss of human life to U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt and offered PAHO's experience and assistance in dealing with the disaster's aftermath.
"I would like to place at your disposal the staff of PAHO's Area on Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief, and indeed our entire public health staff, to provide any cooperation you might require to help restore health services in the wake of this disaster," she wrote.
On top of the physical devastation brought by this unprecedented U.S. natural disaster, there is growing concern about the health of thousands of survivors.
The magnitude of potential health problems that can result from widespread flooding in extensive areas with high population density has been documented by disaster experts at PAHO and other national and international agencies. PAHO has a program dedicated to protecting and assisting populations affected by natural disasters, such as those along the U.S. Gulf Coast now suffering the effects of Katrina.
One of the more tragic aspects of Katrina is the growing number of casualties. Survivors and news reports tell of bodies floating in the floodwaters of New Orleans and in other affected areas.
However, contrary to some media reports, the bodies of natural disaster victims do not themselves pose a risk of epidemics.
An article in the current issue of the Pan American Journal of Public Health debunks the common misconception that cadavers in disaster zones constitute a health risk. In the article, Claude de Ville de Goyet, former head of PAHO's disaster program, and Oliver Morgan, of the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, note that for many years, fear of disease outbreaks has led disaster-affected communities, local authorities, and governments to rapidly dispose of bodies without identifying them.
PAHO has published a manual titled Management of Dead Bodies in Disaster Situations, which describes in detail appropriate procedures in this area, taking into account ethical, cultural and human rights concerns.
According to PAHO disaster experts, officials in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi are likely carrying out detailed damage assessments to help them estimate the collateral health effects of Katrina on the affected population now and in the coming days and weeks. Careful damage assessment also helps officials with more effective mobilization and distribution of resources according to health priorities.
PAHO documents available at www.paho.org/disasters (see Publications Catalog) note that, in general, it is easy to underestimate the impact of a disaster on wastewater and sewage systems, "since much of the damage may be hidden in the course of the preliminary assessments, only becoming apparent once all the systems are working at full pressure."
Other impacts that are difficult to quantify, but which are of utmost importance, are those on the mental health of the affected population. Depression, anxiety, and grief are among the mental health problems that may affect thousands of victims in New Orleans and other areas hit by the hurricane and subsequent flooding.
Experts estimate that the effects of hurricane Katrina on public health will be enormous and long-term. Authorities in affected parts of the Gulf coast have declared that public health systems face huge problems caused by the difficulty of access to the area, lack of water, lack of electric power, telephone service, and other basic services essential to modern medicine.
The federal government declared a public health emergency in the Gulf Coast, promising medical centers and thousands of doctors and nurses for the affected area. Patients requiring treatment beyond what the medical shelters can provide will be transported to hospitals out of the immediate area.
"We've identified 2,600 beds in hospitals in the 12-state area. In addition to that, we've identified 40,000 beds nationwide, should they be needed," said Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt.
In New Orleans, a city of 500,000 people, there are estimated to be some 5000 patients who require kidney dialysis at least twice a week. Local officials estimate it could take weeks for drinking water service to be restored in the city, as well as electricity.
The chief of PAHO's Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief area, Dr. Jean Luc Poncelet, noted that "to organize humanitarian assistance during a disaster situation we created a Supply Management System (SUMA), a tool for local coordination in the management of humanitarian supplies."
PAHO works continually to mitigate vulnerability in case of disaster, distributing informative material to the public and health professionals and providing technical cooperation to affected countries.
"We also organize some 40 courses every year in the Caribbean along the paths of hurricanes that cover essential subjects such as management of stress, management of victims and coordination of human and financial resources," said Poncelet.
PAHO, established in 1902, is the oldest public health organization in the world. It is the Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization and works with the countries in order to improve the health and the quality of life of its inhabitants.
For more information please contact Daniel Epstein, PAHO, Public Information, 202-974-3459.