Post-Hurricane Disease Concerns in Puerto Rico

The Centers for Disease Control list a number of diseases to watch out for after a hurricane:

  • Leptospirosis

Leptospirosis is an unfamiliar word to most of us; some people have gotten it confused with leprosy, but it is not a communicable disease. Leptospirosis is a disease which comes from contact with contaminated water.While it is not common in the United States, it often follows flooding, since the animal waste that carries it can easily be spread by flood waters.

More than a dozen confirmed cases of leptospirosis have been recorded in Puerto Rico and there have been two confirmed deaths. Some dogs rescued from Puerto Rico have been found to be carrying the disease.

Leptospirosis is treatable with antibiotics, but medical care in Puerto Rico is still challenged by lack of electricity and difficulty in traveling to health care facilities. Leptospirosis will continue to be an issue at least as long as Puerto Rico is without safe water for the entire population. Soil and water may continue to be contaminated for some time.

  • Dengue

Dengue fever is a tropical disease that is considered endemic to Puerto Rico, and there have been epidemic outbreaks periodically since the 1960s.

Dengue is a virus spread by mosquitoes. It is common in tropical countries. It causes muscle and joint pain, rash, and can be fatal. Victims usually recover within days or weeks. Since it is a mosquito-borne disease, standing water after a hurricane or flood can increase the danger. So far, there have been no signs of a dengue outbreak in Puerto Rico.

  • Hepatitis A

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver caused by a virus. Contaminated food and water are common causes of the disease. It can take six weeks for the condition to develop, so this one may still be ahead for Puerto Rico. The disease is contagious up to two weeks before symptoms develop.

Perishable food can easily spoil when there is no reliable electricity. As of this writing, 15% of people in some rural areas in Puerto Rico are still without safe drinking water.

Hepatitis is also contagious, and can be spread from one person to another. The disease lasts several weeks when it is a mild case, and a severe case can last for as long as six months.

  • Typhoid

Typhoid fever is another disease commonly spread through contaminated food or water, but which is also contagious. It is a painful disease, and without medical care it kills about 25% of its victims.

Typhoid can be treated with antibiotics. Lack of access to health care in Puerto Rico is causing deaths from diseases which are not usually fatal in the 21st century.

  • Vibriosis

Vibriosis, related to cholera, is a bacterial disease. The bacteria live in warm salt water, and cause illness or death in susceptible people.

People most often get vibriosis when a wound is exposed to sea water, or when they eat contaminated fish or shellfish. This kind of infection is seen more often after hurricanes or tropical storms.

  • Zika

Like Dengue fever, Zika is a mosquito-borne tropical virus. Puerto Rico had an outbreak of Zika in 2016. Zika mosquitoes may have been wiped out by Hurricane Maria. However, the CDC warns that standing water following the hurricanes could be a dangerous breeding ground for the insects.

  • Influenza.

Influenza, also called the flu, isn’t an obvious follow up to hurricanes, but statistical studies show that it’s more common after major natural disasters. Why? Because so many people are herded together in shelters. Ordinary flu spreads easily as people are displaced, crowded together, and unable to keep up with their usual hygiene routines.

The death toll of Hurricane Maria is still uncertain, but chances are good that the numbers will rise until access to shelter, safe food and water, and medical care are sorted out.

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