Catastrophic Weather Events and Health
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
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.