spea magazine

Speaking Out: Learning from Katrina—What Our Experts Say

Catastrophic Weather Events and Health

Allen Anderson

Allen Anderson In light of recent events, most Americans have become keenly aware of the potential public health impact of catastrophic weather events, particularly those associated with extensive flooding. The fecal contamination of floodwater, as well as the contamination of public water systems from seepage of groundwater into pipes at reduced pressure, increases the possibility of ingestion of waterborne pathogens that, at a minimum, may cause severe gastroenteritis. This condition, while unpleasant, should be self-limiting in healthy individuals.

However, for those with compromised immune systems (i.e., those on chemotherapy, those who have recently undergone organ transplants, and those with HIV/AIDS) such infections can prove fatal. Standing water may also increase the mosquito population and the potential for the spread of West Nile virus in the region.

Even when the floodwaters have receded, a residue of bacteria and mold-laden sludge and construction debris will increase the chance for the ingestion or inhalation of harmful organisms. Fortunately, there have been no reports, to date, of widespread disease outbreaks associated with the flooding, due in large measure to the rapid deployment of federal, state, and local public health experts.

Of particular intermediate concern is the impact of the entire episode on the aged, those with chronic illnesses, and those with HIV/AIDS. Any disruption of medical care, especially concerning compliance with strict medication regimens, could create serious health problems. In the long run, however, the unrelenting and devastating stress that individuals endured because of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita may result in the proliferation of such problems as severe anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Clearly, the public health implications of the recent devastation will be with us well into the future.

Allen Anderson is a visiting professor at SPEA, IUB. He has worked on HIV/AIDS transmission and control issues in the People’s Republic of China for 15 years. Professor Anderson received his Ph.D. in 1984 from Southern Illinois University and a certification in Public Health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2004.