Sep 7 2005
Federal health officials in the U.S. are defending themselves against criticism that the government was not prepared to deal with disaster left by Hurricane Katrina.
Despite how it may have appeared to those suffering the dire consequences of the disaster, health experts on the ground are also saying they had not been caught by surprise.
They say that some teams arrived a day before Katrina hit the Gulf coast and that preparations began a week in advance.
They say that field hospitals have been installed across the Southeast and have already processed thousands of patients.
Health officials are apparently stepping up efforts not only to provide for the immediate needs of refugees, but to fill in the gap for health systems destroyed in the storm or overwhelmed by thousands of evacuees.
Dr. Julie Gerberding, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) , is reported to have said that although they knew the hurricane was coming they had no idea of the damage it would do.
She believes hospitals did what they could to be prepared but it was difficult to prepare for something of this scope and in particular the flooding in New Orleans.
Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Mike Leavitt said access into the city was difficult because of the flooding and because of shooting and looting.
Security issues that have been widely reported, made it more difficult to establish a foothold at the convention center and the Superdome but people nevertheless received remarkable care, under the circumstances, he says.
Surgeon-General Dr. Richard Carmona, says centers are up and running, and he has seen a metropolitan hospital where patients were not only receiving care, but receiving the social services that they needed.
Leavitt says 1,000 hospital beds have been set up in the New Orleans area and 8,000 professionally qualified health-care volunteers have signed up on HHS's tollfree telephone line.
Apparently the HHS, the Environmental Protection Agency, the CDC, the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense have set up a joint task force in New Orleans, and Leavitt says they will monitor public health in the New Orleans area in order to judge when New Orleans will be safe to reinhabit.
According to Leavitt, the main concerns are water-borne disease such a E. coli infection, disease of spoiled food and perhaps toxic chemical contamination of the water.
The crowded shelters are also a potential breeding ground for infectious diseases such as the Norwalk virus that plagues cruise ships and causes diarrhea, influenza and other common pathogens, says Gerberding, and some vomiting and diarrhea are expected to occur.
It seems however that the many dead bodies seen floating in the water and believed to be trapped inside flooded houses are not a disease threat.
As some people in the shelters could be carrying diseases such as tuberculosis, Gerberding says they are ensuring that the immunization of children is up to date.
According to doctors working at a field hospital at the Louisiana State University campus in Baton Rouge, they are dispensing more blood pressure and diabetes medications than anything else.
The extra strain on resources is expected to tax day-to-day operations at existing clinics and hospitals.
Baton Rouge, for example is a city that has gone from a city of half a million to 850,000, and will be significantly affected.