Between hell & high water|
By Marsha Mokool, Trinidad Guardian, Monday, November 19th, 2007
1. Flood victims cleaning up after severe flooding in Caparo.
2. Youths bathing in the flood waters of Caparo after heavy rains earlier this year.
Don't exhale just yet. The Atlantic hurricane season officially ends on November 30, and you may be thinking we've made it through another year without being hit. But these days, with climate change, anything can happen. And all it takes is two hours of rainfall to wreak havoc across the country. Prolonged flooding can lead to an outbreak of health problems and diseases, as witnessed by Hurricane Noel's passage through the Caribbean two weeks ago. Floodwaters, according to local and foreign health experts, harbour disease-causing agents that can be even more dangerous than the storm itself.
There have been reports of flooding in almost every part of the country. Whether you live or work in San Juan, Morvant, Port-of-Spain, Point Fortin, Lower Santa Cruz, St Joseph or Caparo, flooding affects almost every citizen. Among the sources identified are the rivers in Barataria, Maraval Diego Martin and the East Dry River, all of which become silted up or clogged by run-off. The flooding problem in Port-of-Spain has been attributed to poor drainage.
Health risks associated with flooding
Flooding can result in excessive breeding of mosquitoes, which carry diseases such as dengue, yellow fever, malaria and West Nile Virus. There is also a potential for acute diarrhoea and acute respiratory infections. People living or working in buildings with wet carpet, walls, mattresses and/or furniture can suffer from allergies and asthma. Those at high risk are infants and children, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with existing respiratory diseases or compromised immune systems.
Contaminated drinking water
The risk of illnesses caused by contaminated food and water increases following severe flooding. Water systems may become contaminated, leading to dehydration and food poisoning. The water in the home may be unsafe for drinking, cooking or washing and this could lead to the spread of hepatitis A, cholera, tuberculosis and typhoid fever.
Swallowing or bathing in floodwater
Swallowing floodwater or exposing mucosal surfaces such as eyes, nose or skin to the water may also produce illness. Person-to-person spread is rare. Treatment is important to prevent more serious illness and a more lengthy recovery. Risk for this disease will be greatly reduced by not swimming or wading in floodwaters.
Mental health affects
Florida State University sociologists have found that some South Floridians who survived Hurricane Andrew in 1992 suffered mental health problems many years later. The study measured some but not all of the common experiences associated with the disaster, such as perceptions of safety during the storm, loss of personal belongings and living without electricity and adequate food or water after the storm. They found that people who experienced prior stressful events and who had pre-existing symptoms of psychological distress were more adversely affected by exposure to hurricane-related stressful events.
What disease-causing agents may be present in floodwaters?
* Hepatitis A - It is especially important to find out if a person with this illness is a food handler or works in a nursery or school.
* Parasites - Some waterborne parasites may also cause chronic diarrhoea.
* Leptospirosis - During widespread flooding of an area there may be a potential, but small, risk for a disease called leptospirosis, which is caused by exposure to animal urine. Humans can be infected through contact with water, food or soil containing animal urine or tissue.
Symptoms may range from none to high fever, headache, chills, muscle aches, vomiting, jaundice (yellow eyes and skin), abdominal pain, diarrhoea or rash. If the disease is not treated, kidney damage or liver failure may develop as well as respiratory failure or meningitis.
Tips for dealing with health, safety and environmental issues
* It is important for physicians to test for and identify agents of illnesses so that outbreaks may be prevented and controlled in a timely and effective manner.
* It is especially important to wash your hands with soap before smoking, eating or drinking.
* If your house is flooded, porous or spongy materials including carpet that have been saturated with floodwaters should be thrown away. It is also advisable to scrub hard surfaces of your home and its dried contents with warm soapy water using laundry detergent.
* Wash all clothing items in hot, soapy water.
* Contaminated mattresses, upholstered furniture and carpets should be discarded because they cannot be thoroughly cleaned and dried. All cleaned items should be thoroughly dried, or mould and mildew will return.
* If the public water supply is contaminated, the water for drinking, cooking, making ice, brushing teeth, and bathing should be boiled for approximately three to five minutes.
Because boiling water can increase nitrate levels seen after flooding, young infants and pregnant women should not drink boiled water. Bottled water should be used by pregnant women and for preparing infant formula.
* Remove excess water from birdbaths, flower pots, tires, buckets and other containers to eliminate breeding grounds for mosquitoes.