Infections kill 3 after Katrina; others at risk
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
They also have high levels of lead, Johnson said.
“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, especially children,” Johnson said.
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.
Respiratory illness could be another problem, and
Gerberding said as soon as this season’s influenza vaccine
becomes available, they will be encouraging refugees to be
Manufacturer Sanofi-Aventis was making 200,000 of its first
influenza vaccine doses available to evacuees as soon as they
are finished making it, she said.
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.
“First, they need very clear information,” Insel told
reporters in a telephone briefing.
“Second, it is critical to keep families together,” he
added. And developing routines for eating, sleeping and going
to school is also key, he said.
“You want to make certain that you don’t do other things to
make things worse,” Insel added. For instance, forcing people
to recall their experiences in detail is not helpful, he said.
Most people will come through fine, he said, and have “some
incredible stories to tell their grandchildren.”
“For the vast, vast majority of people the word is
resilience here. Most people will recover completely.”