Floodwater injuries, mold and more: 7 likely health ramifications after Hurricane Harvey

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The dangers of Hurricane Harvey's catastrophic flooding will linger in Texas, long after the floodwaters recede and the displaced return home, according to a report from The Washington Post.

In the article, Peter Hotez, MD, PhD, dean of tropical medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, categorizes the health ramifications caused by the disaster as "short-term, long-term and big picture."

Here are seven health consequences to expect after Hurricane Harvey, according to the Post.


1. Floodwater injuries: People can often underestimate the dangers of floodwaters, as just six inches of fast-moving water can knock down an adult, according to Dr. Hotez. Seventy-five percent of those who die in floods drowned, according to data from the World Health Organization cited in the report. Nine deaths have been attributed to Hurricane Harvey so far. Flooding can also increase the likelihood of injuries from wild animals as it can carry floating clumps of fire ants and force snakes to search for higher ground.

2. Infectious disease: Flooding compromises sewage systems, which can flush human waste and other debris into the streets. Floodwaters can also exhume corpses from cemeteries, as they did in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina. While it's hard to predict what precise microbes will put humans at risk, possible culprits include methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and flesh-eating bacteria, according to Dr. Hotez.

3. Heat: Power outages often occur after hurricanes, meaning many individuals with underlying health issues possibly worsened by high temperatures may have to go without air-conditioning.

Short-term and long-term

4. Mosquitoes: Floodwaters will immediately decrease the mosquito population by destroying breeding pools. However, as the floodwater recedes, the mosquito population will rebound, increasing the risk of vector-borne disease like Zika, dengue and West Nile. In 2006, after Hurricane Katrina, West Nile cases doubled in communities hard hit by the hurricane, according to the Post.


5. Mental Health: A 2015 study published in Nature examined the long-term implications for Hurricane Katrina regarding mental health. Suicidal thoughts, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression all increased among the 815 study participants affected by the hurricane in the month and years after the storm.

6. Mold: Evacuees can spend more than three weeks away from their homes after a hurricane. These houses can remain waterlogged and overheated during this timeframe, creating an optimal breeding ground for mold. After Katrina, mold was implicated in the deaths of four Southern University at New Orleans professors who all worked in the same storm-damaged facility, according to the Post.

Big Picture

7. Regional vulnerability: "We don't realize that the Gulf Coast is America's vulnerable underbelly of infectious disease," Dr. Hotez told the Post, citing the region's poverty, humid climate and transportation hubs as facilitators of the dissemination of disease. These issues are exacerbated by the effects of climate change.

"All of those forces combine to make the Gulf Coast especially susceptible to infectious and tropical disease," said Dr. Hotez.

More articles on infection control: 
Minnesota's largest measles outbreak in decades is officially over 
Structured vs. unstructured hand-washing techniques — which is more effective for removing C. diff? 
Top 10 infection control stories, Aug. 21-25

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