City prepares itself for health crisis as floodwater becomes 'toxic soup'

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The Independent US

Health specialists predict a vast and potentially deadly crisis for the residents of New Orleans as disease spreads and emergency workers struggle to treat the most vulnerable.

A combination of contaminated water, a lack of sanitation, and heat could help trigger the spread of a number of bacteria such as E.coli and salmonella. Residents could be at risk from everything from diarrhoea to West Nile disease. The very old, the very young and those with weak immune systems are most at risk.

Officials say it could be weeks before floodwaters retreat and power supplies are returned. By then, the floodwaters will have become a toxic soup of sea water, faeces, petrol and industrial chemicals.

Emergency workers have reported corpses floating in the flood waters.

Dr Delia Rivera, an expert in infectious diseases at the University of Miami School of Medicine, said the flood waters might carry epidemic-causing diseases such as typhoid fever, cholera and leptospirosis.

However, she told the Miami Herald the risk was more serious from mosquito- borne diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and West Nile virus. "In an area like New Orleans, it could happen," she said.

Christina Pearson, the spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said that federal and state officials had already launched a programme aimed at controlling mosquito infestation.

The evacuation of seven of the region's hospitals, due to flooding and lack of power is also hampering relief efforts.

In the city's Superdome sports centre, medical workers and volunteers are treating a range of conditions, including heat stroke and kidney failure.

Almost 40 doctors, nurses and other public health officials were standing by yesterday in Jackson, across the state line in Mississippi, and 382 extra federal public health officials are ready to be deployed as soon as possible, said officials. These include specialists in sanitation, poison control, food safety and mental health.

The federal government has also reportedly prepared a shipment of 27 pallets of medical supplies, including bandages, ice packs, blood pressure kits and portable oxygen tanks.

Public health workers will also have to contend with the problems that arise after every hurricane. These include carbon monoxide poisoning for people running generators indoors, residents falling from roofs, and car accidents that happen at intersections where traffic lights are not working.