Nicole Bode and Paul H.B. Shin: Knight Ridder News Service
NEW ORLEANS — A new threat of waterborne illnesses has emerged in the hurricane-ravaged coastal towns of Louisiana and Mississippi, where people continued to wade through putrid floodwaters Tuesday.
People suffering from such illnesses are flocking to the few hospitals operating in the devastated Gulf Coast region, public health officials said. Doctors fear that infectious diseases could spread due to unsanitary conditions.
“We’re seeing a lot of dysentery from people drinking water they shouldn’t be,” said Dr. Thomas Seglio, 43, medical director of the emergency room at Biloxi Regional Medical Center.
The hospital was still operating without running water Tuesday.
A four-person team of epidemiologists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention arrived at Seglio’s hospital to monitor for infectious diseases. The agency has dispatched 140 experts to the region overall, agency spokesman Von Roebuck said.
Seglio said he has yet to see symptoms such as severe dehydration or high fever, which would signal the spread of deadly illnesses such as typhoid or cholera.
“We’ve been fortunate so far because a lot of people are gone (outside the region),” said Seglio.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said the water flooding his city is a toxic brew.
“There’s probably toxic substances in the water. Mosquitoes are hatching and biting the dead bodies and spreading diseases,” he said. “It’s a very volatile and unhealthy situation.”
Medical volunteers have also begun to inoculate hundreds of police, firefighters, national guardsmen and rescue workers, mostly giving shots for tetanus and hepatitis A and B.
But the effort to get the vaccines to those in need was haphazard at times, New Orleans Police Officer Kevin Diel, 22, said. He stopped by the 1st District precinct house in the French Quarter after getting a deep gash in his arm.
“Where are the shots?” he asked, after hearing medical volunteers had inoculated several officers there on Monday.
The soggy, sweltering post-storm conditions are an ideal breeding ground for diseases. And that has many people worried — especially those who must wade through foul water or deal with cuts from jagged debris.
“We broke into Tulane Medical Center to get Cipro,” said New Orleans Police Sgt. Jake Schnapp, 39, referring to the potent antibiotic.
New York Firefighter Brett Asher of Engine 96 in the Bronx said he was also concerned about all the human waste in New Orleans’ stagnant waters.
“I’m nervous. I’m definitely worried about it,” he said.
The FDNY inoculated firefighters on Monday as they waited at Kennedy Airport to board a plane to the region, said Lt. Chris Corbin of Ladder 126 in Queens. Corbin received a tetanus shot at the airport, he said.