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Public health threat from Hurricane Harvey just beginning


More than 30 people are dead in the wake of Harvey, but the longest lasting impact of the hurricane turned tropical storm is just beginning: the public health threat.

From the bacteria, viruses, and fungi harbored in floodwaters to new breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes to a potentially staggering mental health toll inflicted on those hardest hit by Harvey, the risks are expected to be great.

To get a better sense of the public health problems that may lie ahead, the Chronicle interviewed a number of public health experts. Here’s what we learned:


Do you need a tetanus shot if you spent any time in floodwaters?

You only need a tetanus shot – ASAP – if you exposed an open wound to floodwaters. Of course, unless you’ve had a tetanus shot in the last 10 years, you probably need a booster shot, but there’s no rush, particularly given the stresses Harvey will put on the health-care system.


Ok, but aren’t there serious infections lurking in those waters?

Yes, there are quite a few, of which the most dangerous is vibrio vulnificus, the so-called flesh-eating bacteria. New Orleans reported more than 20 cases after Katrina – it has five or six in a typical year – and Dr. A. Scott Lea, an infectious disease professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, said he expects the Houston area will see some post-Harvey cases, though likely more along the Gulf Coast than in Houston.

Temple says to get to a physician or emergency room within 24 hours if you suspect you have the potentially life-threatening infection, which is characterized by terrible pain and large blisters.


Is the water safe?

Mayor Sylvester Turner and the Houston health department say the water is safe but Lea says people in smaller communities with different water supplies should be careful, that it’s not known if they were breached. He suggests people in such communities drink boiled or bottled water to be safe.


When do the mosquitoes come?

Baylor College of Medicine tropical medicine specialist says the floodwaters likely swept away many breeding sites and should cause a decrease in mosquito activity in the short run. But he says there likely will be a sharp increase after floodwaters recede and new breeding sites pop up. He said it’s possible the spike might be reflected next year too, given there’s only another 1 1/2 months in Houston’s mosquito season. There was such a year-after spike in New Orleans following Katrina.


What are the health concerns in crowded public shelters?

Fortunately, it’s not close to flu season, so tuberculosis is the probably the biggest potential concern, said Hotez, The disease, which still occurs in Houston, is spread from person to person through the air, typically by coughing.


What are public health threats you might not expect? Injuries. Conventional wisdom might suggest that most injuries are sustained during the event itself, but post-disaster studies show that most occur in the weeks after the event. In the month following Katrina, for instance, Louisiana’s health department found that 27 percent of New Orleans’ 75,000 health problems involved injuries.


What are some examples? Back injuries from lifting heavy, wet items, such as mattresses or sofas. Carbon monoxide poisoning from running portable generators in the house. Electrocution from plugging into outlets before they’ve been evaluated by an electrician. Punctures wounds. Animal bites. Heat stress.

“People want to get home and restore their lives,” said Robert Emery, vice president for safety at UT Health Science Center at Houston. “That zeal is where they get injured. Pause and make sure you’re within your capabilities, thinking things through.”


What are the signs you or your loved one might benefit from psychiatric help?

Most people affected by Harvey flooding will experience some sort of distress, which is normal and expected, said Dr. Jeff Temple, a UTMB psychologist. But those who worry excessively, experience difficulty sleeping or loss of appetite, develop rapid heart rates or sweating are at risk of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and should seek help, said Temple.

He said the risk is greatest among those who’ve experienced prior trauma, lack social support and were hardest hit – they had to be evacuated, witnessed tragedy of feared for their life. Studies show PTSD occurs in about 20 percent of people affected by natural disasters, said Temple.

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