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Health Officials Say Disease May Threaten US Gulf Coast

With much of New Orleans still under water, public health officials are concerned about the possible outbreak of disease and other conditions that could threaten the well-being of those still in the flooded city, those who have taken refuge elsewhere, and others throughout the region affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Dr. Georges Benjamin is the executive director of the American Public Health Association, which represents some 50,000 doctors and other members in various public health professions. Dr. Benjamin says there are numerous issues to watch.

"Certainly in the acute term and moderate term, we have to worry about carbon monoxide poisoning from people using portable stoves. We have to be concerned about continued injuries, we have to be concerned about people eating spoiled food and water that's not safe to drink. And those are big public health challenges that often get overlooked," he says. "Certainly mental health both acute depression and then in the long term, [we should] be very much concerned about the long-term mental health aspects of what's going on. There's going to be concerns, particularly in crowded conditions, about passing of respiratory diseases to one another. And of course, as the fall comes in, we've got the flu season."

Dr. Benjamin says there is also a risk of even more lethal infectious diseases, such as cholera. "Yes. I mean, certainly they've had cholera outbreaks there in the past, and they've had typhoid outbreaks there in the past. And remember, this is a very hot, muggy community with a lot of mosquitoes. So mosquito-born diseases like malaria are a potential. And so, there are things we know that we can do to help mitigate that, and those need to be done."

"New Orleans is a very hot place to be at this time of year, and most survivors of the disaster have no electric power for fans or air conditioners, so heat exposure and dehydration are serious problems," he says, adding, that another issue is that many people will be unable to take their usual medications.

"You know, you have people who are going to run out of their medications, and so we we're going to have to have a capacity to get them their medications," says Dr. Benjamin. "We have people that've got medical conditions they've put off [dealing with], [who] now need to have those medical conditions taken care of. You know, the person who has a breast cancer and they have surgery scheduled, but now it can't be done. That's still going to have to happen. Or who was getting chemotherapy. That's still going to have to happen."

Authorities have focused on the survivors of the hurricane and flood, and there are reportedly many dead bodies in New Orleans, in the water or in buildings. But the head of the American Public Health Association says those do not pose much of a health hazard. "Obviously it's unsightly and the humanity of it is just heartbreaking, but I think the greatest threats remain [the lack of] clean water, safe food, and they will have to deal with the tragedy of the people that have died. But we do have people that have lived, and we have to make sure that they're safe," says Dr. Benjamin.

The Gulf coast hit by the hurricane is home to numerous industrial facilities, including oil refineries and chemical plants. Dr. Benjamin says toxic leakage from those facilities could have serious public health effects. "All of the leakages, all of those environmental toxins, potential toxins, are a problem. They're going to need to be tested for it. They're going to need to be tested for in water. They're going to need to be tested for in the soil. And that's, again, one of the reasons for removing folks and checking the environment to make sure it's safe before you move people back in."

Ironically, the American Public Health Association had scheduled its annual meeting for New Orleans later this year. Dr. Georges Benjamin says the group is still discussing it, but it's looking less and less likely that they'll be able to meet in New Orleans as planned.