Apres Le Deluge: Infectious Disease Risks and Hurricane Harvey


While the pressing issues regarding Hurricane Harvey's onslaught are responding to the acute needs of those in need of rescue from the peril of flood waters, the coming days and the recovery period will increasingly be characterized by new health-related problems. Among those will be threat of infectious diseases exacerbated by infrastructure failures.

Infrastructure provides clean water for the activities of daily living such as drinking, cooking, and bathing. Infrastructure also separates sewage from living spaces. When infrastructure fails, the chances of contamination by high levels of infectious agents increases tremendously.

Infrastructure has withstood Harvey so far. In the coming days, though, it should be anticipated that more cases of gastrointestinal infections from bacterial, viral, and parasitic causes will increase as people are increasingly exposed to these agents via water. Disruption in the water system need not be complete for exposure to occur as people wade in and are immersed in the water. It will be important that when these cases of GI infection accrue, patients receive appropriate treatment (e.g., hydration) and are prevented from further spreading the illness -- a difficult prospect in a flood-ravaged locale with alternate housing facilities. Leptospirosis from exposure to rat urine and severe Vibrio vulnificus infections are also rare -- but serious -- infections that might occur.

Huddling of people in alternate housing may also facilitate the spread of respiratory viruses and pathogens as people increasingly are kept in close quarters. Hand hygiene will be essential.

Tetanus is also a minor risk as people who are insufficiently immunized may sustain puncture wounds that become infected with the tetanus bacterium -- which is ubiquitous in the environment. Other bacterial infections can occur in this way, as lacerations and abrasions become portals of entry.

Standing water will also be a major concern given the threat of mosquito-borne illnesses in Texas. Standing water serves as breeding sites for mosquitoes and after what has happened in Texas, standing water will likely persist for some time in debris. Zika, chikungunya, dengue, and West Nile all have been locally spread in Texas and would be expected to have enhanced transmission in the weeks after this event.

Much of the decrement in infectious disease in the world today is due to modern civil infrastructure. Infrastructure failures (and absences) leave humans in the position of contending with nature in the raw. However, with foresight, planning, and preparation hopefully the infectious disease consequences can be minimized.