Hurricane Harvey: A “slow-motion rolling disaster” of disease has just begun

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“Infectious diseases could sweep across Texas as Harvey floods Houston … turning entire neighborhoods into contaminated and potentially toxic rivers … [and] the city into a sprawling, pathogen-infested swamp,” reports Newsweek.

Natural disasters turn real estate into virtual playgrounds for pathogens. Numerous factors combine: Advancing dirty floodwater – sewage, chemicals, tiny sharp objects of metal and glass – eventually becomes a stagnant, breeding ground for mold & bugs. A boil water advisory issued this week means tap water is contaminated – but many people won’t hear about it. Large swaths of power outages began last weekend and so air conditioning & refrigeration are gone and food will be lost. Stores are closed. Roads are underwater. Public transportation = a boat. People are unable to work and earn an income. Homes are destroyed. People are scared. All this and more at a time of sub-tropical August heat & humidity during – of all things – mosquito season.

And so the usual suspects will get to work: E. coli, Shigella, Vibrio illnesses (cholera-like illnesses), mosquito-borne pathogens like Zika and yellow fever, and even Legionnaire’s disease, inducing intestinal illness in the form of diarrhea, vomiting, fever, stomach pain and dehydration. Now imagine life in an overcrowded shelter if one of these illnesses took root. Or in your home where it’s sweltering and there’s no air conditioning and running water. Then multiply that over the whole neighborhood: that’s Newsweek’s concern of a city turned into a “pathogen-infested swamp.”


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There’s more. Science journalist @Maryn Mckenna who grew up in Houston and covered Katrina, wrote an eye-opening thread on Tuesday observing that: “Natural disasters have a long, long tail.… The result is a slow-motion rolling disaster in which people lose care and lose the proof they’re entitled to care, while they get sicker.” Lost is access to clinics, hospitals, pharmacies, medical records and doctor’s orders that people depend on to stay healthy – and stay alive. For instance, those requiring cancer chemo, or transplant care, or people with COPD or diabetes.

Mckenna gave special mention to dialysis patients:

Out of my experience covering Katrina and the aftermath, here’s what’s haunting me today: the average time between dialysis treatments … Houston’s floods began three days ago. That’s a normal time between treatments for someone on dialysis. Missing treatment = getting sick … In Katrina, bus convoys of dialysis patients drove out of the city to get to places where they could continue treatment uninterrupted … These were people who were not flooded out, who still had working cars (though sometimes no power, and the water in Nola wasn’t safe) …


She was backed up by a Houston physician speaking with NPR the following day: “If they don’t dialyze three times a week, they … can become very, very sick.” Muscles, including the heart, can stop functioning correctly. “Over so many days, they can’t survive.” Even if patients do make it to the clinic they may not be treated: “Many of our nurses are locked in, flooded out of their homes, and they’re either somewhere else, or they can’t get out of our neighborhoods…. As a consequence, we don’t have enough nurses to dialyze the numbers of patients that are coming here.”

Many others are at risk too: trapped seniors, disabled, and the bedridden; children separated from parents; mental health patients who run out of meds; stranded pets & other animals; and so on.

All told, this is “one of the largest disasters America has ever faced,” said Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, as he warned against expecting anything resembling recovery any time soon, or a return to the way things were. “We need to recognize it will be a new normal, a new and different normal for this entire region.”

The new normal is rapidly unfolding. Just this morning The New York Times reports a whole new kind of public health threat: a series of small explosions – “and a threat of additional explosion remains” – at a chemical plant in Crosby, Tex., about 30 miles northeast of Houston. More than a dozen Harris County deputies went to the hospital after inhaling fumes. Residents within a 1.5-mile radius have been evacuated.

Similarly, Democracy Now reports that “an environmental crisis is unfolding as oil and chemical industry spew toxic pollutants into air.” One specific case: “… gas leaks … in La Porte [30 mi. E. of downtown Houston; pop. 34,000] that resulted in a very, very dangerous chemical, anhydrous hydrogen chloride, and this gas mixed with the moisture in the air to produce hydrochloric acid, a corrosive that can damage respiratory organs, eyes, skin and intestines.”

Since Houston is home to the country’s largest refining and petrochemical complex this is an issue to watch.

As we move into the Labor Day weekend there is something we can do – help Harvey victims with a donation. ABC News is reporting that up to 40,000 homes have been destroyed and more than 32,000 people are in shelters. The Times has an excellent article on how to help, called “Where to Donate to Harvey Victims (and How to Avoid Scams),” available here.


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