September 7, 2005
Infections kill 3 after Katrina
By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Three people have died from
bacterial infections in Gulf states after Hurricane Katrina,
and tests confirm that the water flooding New Orleans is a stew
of sewage-borne bacteria, federal officials said on Wednesday.
A fourth person in the Gulf region is suspected to be
infected with Vibrio vulnificus, a common marine bacteria,
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Julie
Gerberding told reporters, citing reports from state health
officials in Mississippi and Texas.
"This does not represent an outbreak," Gerberding told a
news conference. "It does not spread from person to person."
"People who are compromised in immunity can sometimes
develop very severe infections from these bacteria. We see
cases of this from time to time along the coast," she added.
And tests of the waters flooding New Orleans show it is, as
expected, loaded with raw sewage.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen
Johnson said all the tests of waters in flooded residential
areas of New Orleans exceeded by at least 10 times the safe
levels of E. coli and other so-called coliform bacteria, found
in the human gut and used as an indicator of sewage
contamination. They also have high levels of lead.
"Human contact with the floodwaters should be avoided as
much as possible," Johnson told the news conference. "This may
seem obvious ... but no one should drink the floodwaters,
Gerberding said the message was clear.
"For evacuees who haven't left the city yet, you must do
so," he said. "This water is not going away any time soon."
Rescuers are scrubbing down evacuees with soap and water at
the first possible opportunity, and Gerberding said anyone who
comes into contact with the water should also wash.
But the danger of infection also continues in the crowded
shelters where refugees are staying for the foreseeable future.
"Right now in the shelters where most of the people are
located we have seen sporadic reports of gastrointestinal
illness," Gerberding said. The conditions are specially ripe,
she said, for norovirus, a type of virus that includes the
Norwalk virus that occasionally causes outbreaks on cruise
"Norovirus is not generally life-threatening," said
Gerberding. But stressed and fragile refugees will be
especially vulnerable, she said.
In Houston, David Persse, who oversees medical issues for
Houston, said the city that has accommodated more displaced
people than any other has not seen any evidence of disease from
infected flood waters.
Yet with thousands living in huge shelters such as the
Astrodome, a former baseball stadium, risk of disease spreading
remained high, he said.
"You are never over the hump as long as they are living in
a very crowded living setting," he said in an interview. "As
long as we continue to have that, we are going to continue to
be at risk."
Respiratory illness could be another problem, and the CDC's
Gerberding said as soon as this season's influenza vaccine
becomes available, they will be encouraging refugees to be
Another concern is the mental health of refugees, National
Institute of Mental Health Director Dr. Thomas Insel said.
Simple measures can ensure that the immense stress of losing
homes, livelihoods and loved ones does not turn into something
more serious, he said.
"For the vast, vast majority of people the word is
resilience here. Most people will recover completely."
(Additional reporting by Adam Tanner in Houston)