April 8, 2011

Dealing with Disasters

(Ivanhoe Newswire) -- It's been about a year since the devastating oil spill happened in the Gulf waters of the United States. Now, a new review published in the New England Journal of Medicine this week urgently calls for developing protocols to deal with the health effects of disasters.

Authors of the study say the oil spill -- along with other recent U.S. catastrophes -- illustrates the lack of knowledge about long-term health effects and the need for better planning when dealing with the consequences of these crises.

The authors reported on documented symptoms among 52,000 responders from a number of sources, including self-identified health problems. They say the summer heat in the Gulf contributed to health risks among inexperienced volunteers. Another particular concern was mental health symptoms among workers and community members. Calls to mental health and domestic violence hotlines in the Gulf area have increased since the oil spill.

"Many communities affected by the Gulf oil spill were still recovering from Hurricane Katrina at the time of the Gulf oil spill, which increased the complexity of the response," Dr. Howard Osofsky, Professor and Chair of Psychiatry at LSU Health Sciences Center New Orleans School of Medicine, noted. "We found that 48% of students returning to schools in New Orleans, St. Bernard, and Plaquemines parishes had mental health symptoms in 2005-06. In 2009-10, before the oil spill, 30% continued to have symptoms, suggesting that a complex or repeated trauma increases vulnerability to mental health conditions."

The authors had several recommendations including rapid development and implementation of protocols for baseline clinical evaluations, including respiratory functions; biospecimen banking; short and long-term medical surveillance and monitoring of workers; and the development of psychosocial interventions.

SOURCE: New England Journal of Medicine, April 6, 2011