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Last updated on April 18, 2014 at 13:04 EDT

Medical teams search for epidemics after Katrina

September 13, 2005

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) – Investigators searching for
evidence of epidemics following Hurricane Katrina found plenty
of stomach upset but no serious outbreaks — yet.

“We haven’t seen anything that jumps off the page,” said
Dr. Carolyn Tabak. “But there are illnesses that seem to be
occurring in greater numbers.”

Tabak, a pediatrician at the National Center for Health
Statistics in Hyattsville, Maryland, is helping lead a team of
researchers who will decide if any epidemics have followed the
flood and damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

In addition to the widely expected stomach upset caused by
dirty water, skin infections appeared frequently, she said..

“Rashes are not uncommon here, anyway,” added Edward Weiss,
a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist
from Atlanta. “I think the main illness we are seeing here is
the dysentery, the diarrhea.”

The CDC says 19 people have become ill from Vibrio
bacterial infections and five have died in the region after
Katrina. Three have died from Vibrio vulnificus and two from V.
parahaemolyticus, the CDC said.

Both organisms are common in Gulf waters and usually only
sicken people who already have immune weaknesses.

One hospital, East Jefferson General Hospital, is reporting
cases of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a
bacterial infection that resists many antibiotics and can be
hard to treat. But Weiss said MRSA, usually seen as a skin
infection, has become common in many places.

NO EXPECTATIONS

The CDC did not expect to see any serious, deadly epidemics
after Katrina hit, and not even after some of the levees that
hold back Lake Pontchartrain north of the city failed, flooding
some areas with up to 20 feet of sewage- and chemical-filled
water.

“Although infectious diseases are a frightening prospect,
widespread outbreaks of infectious disease after hurricanes are
not common in the United States,” the CDC said in a statement.

But Tabak and her colleagues were there to track what does
happen, record it, and warn local medical professionals if
anything unusual does seem to be happening.

On Tuesday the CDC team visited one of four working
hospitals in the New Orleans area — the West Jefferson Medical
Center. It stayed dry through the flood and suffered minimal
hurricane damage, although it lost power and many of its staff
have been working without a break since the storm hit August
29.

On its grounds the Federal Emergency Management Agency has
set up a Disaster Medical Assistance Team in tents on the front
lawn to screen all cases going into the hospital.

They have asked the doctors, nurses and technicians to fill
out detailed forms so they can classify cases by illness or
injury, and whether a rescuer or volunteer, or a survivor, was
treated.

Volunteer Tom Lowe, a registered nurse from New York, hands
Tabak a thick stack of handwritten medical records.

“We will compare this to pre-hurricane data,” Tabak said.
They are hoping to retrieve the hospital’s emergency room
records from the week before the hurricane to make a good
comparison.

“We have to know the baseline before we can know whether
there is an epidemic,” she added.

Because most routine disease is not monitored in the United
States, and because disease patterns vary in different parts of
the country, what may appear to be an epidemic to a physician
from the Northeast may in fact be normal for the muggy Gulf
states, she said.