- The Washington Times - Friday, September 9, 2005

The public health of evacuees from areas battered by Hurricane Katrina generally has not been bad, but officials said the Gulf Coast could face increased cases of the mosquito-borne West Nile virus as floodwaters stagnate.

“Right now, in the shelters, where most of the people are located, we’ve seen sporadic reports of outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness, diarrhea,” said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There have been some demonstrations of a virus called norovirus that may be transmitted from person to person. … Norovirus is not a virus that generally causes life-threatening complications. It’s annoying,” she said.

Norovirus, also called Norwalk virus, is caused by consuming feces-contaminated water or food, or coming into contact with someone who is contaminated.

Dr. Gerberding said “infection-control experts … are on the scene in shelters and have taken measures very early to prevent widespread outbreaks” of this condition.

“In that environment, the secret is hand hygiene, keeping the hands clean. And that’s why we’ve put such an emphasis on getting the alcohol-based hand washes out there” in those settings, Dr. Gerberding said.

Four persons from flood-ravaged sections of Louisiana and Mississippi have died from Vibro vulnificus, a bacterial infection that they are thought to have picked up through open sores while wading in Katrina’s contaminated floodwaters.

“In general, people who are exposed [to this germ] and not having any symptoms of vomiting or diarrhea are likely to have missed the problem,” Dr. Gerberding said.

Many of the children staying in shelters are behind in their vaccination schedules, “so we’re working to catch them up,” she said.

Federal health officials are classifying all hurricane evacuees as being a “high priority” group for flu vaccinations, she said, and one vaccine supplier is making 200,000 of the first doses available for those in shelters.

The relatively good news about the health of hurricane evacuees comes as new data suggest there could be a rise in West Nile virus (WNV) in the beleaguered Gulf Coast region.

A total of 68 human cases of WNV and four deaths have been reported in the Gulf states battered by Hurricane Katrina, and health officials predict those numbers could rise, if, as expected, populations of mosquitoes explode, given the standing water that abounds.

Through Tuesday, Louisiana — the site of all four of the Gulf Coast’s reported WNV deaths — had the second-highest WNV death toll of any state after California, according to this week’s issue of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

“They are predicting, because of the flooded areas in some parts of this state, that large numbers of mosquitoes are possible,” said Randy Vaeth, a biologist in the mosquito control division of East Baton Rouge Parish in Louisiana.

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