Post Disaster Diseases: The Risks and Realities

Mar 31 2014

Disasters are catastrophic in virtually every sense. From the physical destruction they cause to property, infrastructure, and the environment to public health hazard of disaster caused disease outbreak, understanding the many risks associated with natural disasters is the only way to prepare a response. The biggest threat to personal safety during a disaster is death from blunt trauma or drowning. Still, disease outbreak is always possible and the aftermath of a disaster may present conditions where communicable disease is a risk. While large scale disease outbreak is not extremely common, though depending on environmental conditions and the population in the aftermath, disease could spread anywhere.

Diseases Associated with Natural Disasters

A major threat to health and safety after a disaster is water-related diseases. These are common mostly because so many natural disasters either directly involve water or cause infrastructure disruptions that can contaminate drinking water or lead to flooding. Any type of flooding–whether caused by tsunamis, hurricanes, or severe rains–presents a serious risk of the spread of certain diseases. Often developing nations are more at risk of outbreaks for some of these communicable diseases–for lack of adequate civil infrastructure, but industrial nations are not immune–particularly if drinking water supplies become contaminated.

Cholera, Salmonella, and Hepatitis A and E are all disaster related diseases spread by contaminated water and poor sanitation. By far, flooding is one of the biggest transmitters of preventable disease after a disaster. This is obviously because water carries everything and comes into contact with everything. Sanitation systems can become compromised during a disaster and lead to the spread of microorganisms and bacteria. The longer these contaminations remain unaddressed, the greater the risk to widespread disease outbreaks. This is compounded when a large number of people are concentrated in an area–some people become infected and soon the disease has spread.


How Great is the Risk?

Often there is a greater public fear of disease outbreak in the aftermath of a disaster than a legitimate threat of a serious outbreak. A large displacement of a population often results in a greater risk for disease transmission. Because this displacement and concentration of people in a single area can involve poor access to proper shelter, healthcare, sanitation, and potable water, the risk of communicable disease increases. In developed nations, disease risk assessment is often carried out by national and state governments with targeted response plans to address damages and contamination affecting populations. Even with containment strategies, however, disease can spread quickly through air and water.

Generally, the more pressing risks after a disaster include: building collapse, fire, electric shock, blunt trauma, and other damages to infrastructure that create hazardous conditions for people. Disease outbreak is relatively uncommon in the U.S following disasters, but you should always plan and take precautions for unsanitary conditions and contaminated drinking water and gather resources to respond to compromised conditions. Keep emergency resources listed in a safe place, create a disaster response kit, and have a plan for staying healthy and safe after a disaster. Disease is unlikely to be the biggest initial threat, but you should prepare for any and everything as much as possible.

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