September 1, 2005

Medical teams head to Gulf for Katrina aftermath

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Experts in sanitation, infectious
disease and mosquito-borne illnesses are heading to the Gulf
region to help cope with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,
and the CDC is combing its ranks for doctors who can pitch in.

But there is not a rush to send hundreds of personnel yet,
because it is not clear what is going on and resources must be
saved for the long haul, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said on Thursday.

"We are planning for a marathon and not a sprint. We will
be collaborating with many people ... for many months,"
Gerberding said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt declared a
public health emergency for the entire Gulf region on
Wednesday. Gerberding said the Federal Emergency Management
Agency was coordinating most of the efforts.

HHS has begun setting up a network of as many as 40 medical
shelters with 10,000 beds and 4,000 medical staff. Another
40,000 hospital beds are available nationwide if needed.

Officials are nowhere near able to take a toll of the dead
or injured.

"This is just an absolutely extraordinary disaster and if
we have any frustrations here it is a lack of communications
and a lack of situational awareness in these areas that are
just completely cut off," Gerberding said.

"But until we can really open the roads, and until the
water subsides, it is impossible for people to get out there
and see what is going on. It is frustrating."


Gerberding said 24 public health teams, each comprised of
20 people, will be deployed.

"They will include infectious disease detection, monitoring
prevention and control, including disease surveillance and
immunization," she said.

A shipment of 8,000 doses of tetanus vaccine was en route
to vaccinate people with injuries, she said.

The CDC teams will also fill some of the day-to-day health
needs of the region, where many hospitals and clinics have been
damaged, flooded, cut off or left without electricity.

"With the Food and Drug Administration we are prepared to
manage any food- or water-borne disease. Over the next days to
weeks we could see the emergence of mosquito populations and
West Nile Virus," Gerberding added.

She said experts would also be watching for injuries, which
are the most common health problem after most disasters as
people try to repair homes and businesses.

"Also, more recently, we have been hearing about episodes
of violence, including rape." She said injury centers would be
set up and rape prevention experts ready to help.

CDC's expertise in helping refugees around the world may be
useful in shelters, notably the New Orleans Superdome, where
toilets have already failed and many people are crowded

Gerberding said the scope of the disaster was so great that
the CDC was treating it like the December 26 tsunami that
devastated Indian Ocean coastal areas.

"In my mind, the events we are dealing with on the Gulf
Coast are more like the tsunami than they are like the usual
hurricane," she said.

"As you recall, we expected a lot of infectious disease
problems within the context of the tsunami and were pleasantly
surprised," Gerberding noted. Health experts immediately moved
in there to help supply clean water, she added.

"We could see an outbreak today, or we may not ever see an
outbreak of infectious disease in this context. It is too soon
to say."