Lakshmanan: Hurricane Harvey and disease: when to protect yourself
Originally published in the Statesman
Our hearts go out to our neighbors and fellow Texans as we navigate the destruction brought by Hurricane Harvey. As the sun re-emerges, we need to ensure Texas does not face a public health disaster.
Our community has shown selflessness and resilience amongst the catastrophe of the storm. Neighbors helping neighbors by any means necessary. Thousands of first responders and volunteers waded deep into flooded communities to save countless lives. Now in the aftermath, the potential for the spread of disease is enormous.
As a health advocacy organization, we are deeply concerned about the immediate medical needs of those affected by the flooding. While the first priority is to get people safely to shelter, the waters coursing through streets and homes contain numerous contaminants and pathogens. For first responders, civilian rescuers and evacuees who have been wading in high waters or handling debris, any skin cuts expose them to real danger.
Making matters worse, the chance of suffering skin cuts or open wounds is higher during an emergency that is requiring many people to walk amid debris, or climb to rooftops to reach higher ground. People are also coming into increased contact with soil, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control, commonly harbors spores of tetanus bacteria. These bacteria can cause serious, even life-threatening illness, but the Tdap (Tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) vaccine provides tremendous protection.
Pertussis or whooping cough should be watched for in emergency shelters across the state. Because whooping cough is so contagious, its spread would be lightning fast in the cramped conditions of the mega-centers. Infants and the elderly are particularly susceptible to the disease with potentially life-threatening consequences.
There are many precautions to take, including maintaining the best hygiene possible under the circumstances; washing with simple soap and water is a big help. However, all people should be aware of the tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis vaccine and when to get it.
If you have not gotten the shot within the past 10 years, it is important to get vaccinated. If you do not know when you had your last shot or booster, it is important to get vaccinated. Children ages 6 and younger should have received their DTaP (Diptheria, tetanus and pertussis) at ages 2, 4 and 6 months, and again at around 15 months. The CDC recommends a booster at 4 to 6 years old.
Texas parents have generally done a good job of getting their children fully vaccinated, but those whose children may have missed a dose should consider getting up to date now. Our leaders share our concern.
This disaster is a reminder of the value of remaining up to date on all our vaccines. In an emergency such as this, people of all ages spend extended time in the close quarters of emergency shelters, where everyone’s health status might vary.
In addition, the flooding has taken a significant toll on the physical and emotional health of many people, thereby stressing their immune systems. Those who are vaccinated boost their immune systems to fight off many contagious diseases.
There is no way to fully prepare for every possibility in a catastrophe of this magnitude. But Texans are tough, caring and smart. We’ll all help each other through the worst of this, and learn what we need to do about planning for maximum safety and optimal health going forward.
Making sure your family’s vaccinations are up to date is not just about protecting yourself; it’s also about continuing to protect our most vulnerable neighbors in this difficult time.