New Orleans faces public health risk

A letter from an epidemiology expert sheds light on the high risk for disease in the sunken city.

Published September 5, 2005 9:39PM (EDT)

Salon editorial fellow Aaron Kinney weighs in with a report from an award-winning journalist on the risk of infectious disease in New Orleans.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Laurie Garrett, an expert on epidemiology and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, sent around an e-mail Friday to her colleagues on the effects of Hurricane Katrina, an epistle that circulated throughout the ether and landed in War Rooms in box. Among her insights: The Mississippi Delta region, which has long served as a transmission point for communicable disease, now confronts a formidable array of public health risks.

First, there is the problem of mosquitoes -- which thrive in the kind of fetid, stagnant water in which New Orleans is now engulfed -- including the Aedes albopictus mosquito, also known as a the Asian Tiger, a "large, aggressive monster" introduced to the Americas about 15 years ago, Garrett wrote. The mosquitoes can carry microbes for such diseases as yellow fever.

Theres also an increased risk of gastrointestinal organisms found in shellfish and some fish caught in the Gulf of Mexico. All the fish killed in the hurricane, along with other rotting waste in Gulf waters, create a perfect environment for algae blooms that allow the organisms to flourish. In addition, the sewage and human waste floating throughout New Orleans pose the risk of diseases that include cholera, e. coli, giardia, West Nile virus, salmonella and Dengue fever.

One piece of good news, Garrett reported, is that physicians and scientists from the Infectious Diseases Society of America appear to be mobilizing to face the problem.

Garrett made a few points unrelated to infectious disease that are worth repeating.

On why some New Orleans residents may have resisted the call to evacuate the city: New Orleans has had one of the highest murder rates in the nation for decades and a notoriously corrupt police force. In our experience dealing with catastrophes and epidemics overseas, there is a direct correlation between the historic relationship between government and its people, and the willingness of the populace to believe in and correctly respond to government instructions.

On the medias early obsession with looting and law and order: "[A] lot of the early media coverage focused on repeating the same stock footage over and over of lootings. The looters were nearly all black, and you could well imagine that many viewers were thinking, 'How could those people behave that way?' The image of black looters, harking to riots in the past and 'lawlessness', may have sparked a temporary downturn in American concern. From that moment the call was not for rescue, but for 'law and order'. We are only now returning to a serious rescue mode, in light of public outcry regarding the estimated 20,000 people stranded without food, water, medicine, or hygiene in the New Orleans Convention Center.

On what to do with the staggering amount of debris and wreckage that authorities will have to clean up: It is hoped that before any officials rush off thinking of how to burn or dump a few hundred thousand boats, houses and buildings, some careful consideration is given to recycling that material for construction of future levees, dams, and foundations. Looking at aerial images of the coastline one sees an entire forest worth of lumber, and the world's largest cement quarry. No doubt tens of thousands of the now unemployed of the region could be hired for a reclamation effort that would be rational in scale and intent. It would be horrible if all that debris were simply dumped or burned without any thought to its utility.

By Aaron Kinney

Aaron Kinney is a writer in San Francisco. He has a blog.

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