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Natural Disasters Raise Health Concerns

A cyclone in Burma, flooding after a devastating earthquake and aftershocks in China, and rising waters in America's Midwest. In addition to death and destruction, natural disasters can cause widespread disease. VOA's Paul Sisco reports.

On Friday, levees along the Mississippi River were still breaking and waters were rushing over Midwestern farmlands and communities like Winfield, Missouri.

Friday thousands of volunteers were sandbagging river banks. Even in areas where clean up has begun, toxic waters are a concern.

When severe flooding occurs, as it has in China, Burma and the U.S. midwest, public health is an issue.

Dr. Tee Guidotti is with George Washington University's School of Public Health. He says the danger to public health, after a natural disaster, is greatest in developing countries.

"The biggest problem other than the safety issues relating to rising water has to do with diarrheal disease,” Guidotti said. “The flood waters will carry viruses, bacteria, pathogens that cause diarrhea and in some cases, for example in Burma, we can expect potential risk of cholera."

He says in Burma, sanitation in the Irrawaddy Delta was poor to begin with. The lack of access to prompt relief there could aggravate the situation. The result: possible epidemics of diarrheal disease.

There are dangers in Western countries too.

"Flood waters in addition to carrying contaminants that are on the surface also flood sewer systems so they carry a lot of human waste and in certain situations, for example in Iowa right now, we're seeing flooding of animal confinement facilities," he added.

Whether in the U.S. Midwest, Burma, or China, Dr. Guidotti says re-establishing a clean water supply is the single greatest priority.

"We'll know we are out of the woods when people have established clean water,” he said. “When they have a secure food supply and they have reconstructed rudimentary housing."

At that point, he says, a public health emergency is over.