Understanding of the likely health emergencies to be encountered in the acute and postdisaster phases is crucial to any emergency response. Although it is widely thought that outbreaks of rare and/or severe disease inevitably follow many types of natural catastrophe, evidence does not support this belief.8,9 Common medical problems after natural disasters include traumatic injury, infectious disease, exacerbations of chronic medical conditions, and a surge in mental health issues (Table 6-2). In addition to the common medical problems previously listed, the handling of bodies has an additional unique impact on the health of the affected population.
TABLE 6-2Common Disease Patterns ||Download (.pdf) TABLE 6-2 Common Disease Patterns
|Trauma ||Communicable Disease ||Chronic Medical Conditions ||Infectious Disease ||Mental Health |
|Strains and sprains ||Respiratory infections ||Hypertension ||Soft tissue infections ||Stress reactions |
|Falls ||GI infections ||Diabetes ||Open fractures ||Depression |
|Lacerations || ||Renal failure ||Vectorborne disease ||Exacerbation of chronic condition |
|Burns || ||Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ||Local diseases || |
|Fractures || || || || |
Traumatic injuries frequently occur in the acute phase of a natural disaster, commonly from direct trauma from collapsing structures or flying debris. A second spike in trauma is seen during the recovery/clean-up phase, mainly due to unsafe infrastructure. However, this secondary spike in trauma may also include violent injuries, depending on the level of civil unrest.10 Although most trauma is minor, management of severe injuries by healthcare professionals can prove especially challenging when resources are lacking, as they often require coordinated surgical care. This necessitates adequate resources of anesthesia, blood products, surgical equipment and the ability to sterilize it, intensive care capacity, and operating theaters. When these resources are unavailable, limb amputation, nonunion, and missed injury rates are high, and lack of safe blood products hampers surgical capability.11,12 Recommendations for adequate surgical capability include mobile blood banks with adequate supply and well-trained staff, at least two units of blood available per operation, adequate supplies of appropriate anesthesia, strict adherence to national or international quality and safety standards, and functioning critical care units.3,12,13
Infectious diseases are commonly feared and should be anticipated after natural disasters. Although popular media often focuses on the possibility of rare disease epidemics, most postdisaster infections are directly related to the usual pathogens of that region.9,14 One exception to this was the outbreak of cholera after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which is believed to have been brought in by United Nations relief workers.15 Evidence indicates that the combination of communicable disease and population malnutrition is the major cause of morbidity and mortality in most disasters. Infectious disease predominantly occurs in the extended postevent phase.16 Infectious disease risks are heightened by certain characteristics common to natural disasters: mass population movement and resettlement; overcrowding; poverty; sanitation and waste issues, including water contamination; absence of shelter, food, and healthcare access; and disruption of public health programs. Respiratory, GI, skin/soft tissue, and vectorborne infectious diseases are most commonly analyzed in disasters.
Respiratory illnesses range from direct aspiration of contaminated water (floods and tsunamis) to airborne droplet transmission to inhalation injuries caused by excess dust or debris. Although most infections are mild, respiratory illness may account for 20% of all natural disaster deaths in children <5 years old.13 In the acute phase of a flood or tsunami, inhalation of water with polymicrobial contamination may cause aspiration pneumonia.17 Most respiratory outbreaks, however, emerge several weeks after disaster as disease spreads through shelters and settlement camps. Both disaster victims and rescue workers are at risk for respiratory illness due to crowded conditions and compromised sanitation.18,19 Some respiratory illnesses (pertussis and measles) are preventable with adequate vaccination; thus, knowledge of the predisaster vaccination status of a population and sufficient vaccine stores may prevent severe outbreaks. Tuberculosis presents a special challenge for public health officials. To prevent outbreaks, adequate stores of antimicrobials must be on hand, and strict adherence to surveillance of known infectious cases is essential.9
GI illness—primarily diarrheal—is another common feature of postdisaster health care. Approximately 40% of deaths in the acute postevent phase (with 80% of these being children) can be attributed to diarrhea. These diseases are mainly due to issues of water quality and availability, sanitation, and cleaning materials; in one study, the mere presence of soap decreased diarrhea by 27% in a refugee camp.16 As with respiratory illness, the incidence of GI disease often peaks several weeks after the disaster, and the infections are generally mild. With good health surveillance and attention to typical endemic disease patterns, severe GI illness outbreaks requiring extraordinary public health resources are rare.
Skin and soft tissue infections are seen in a variety of natural disasters. Falling debris from wind, fire, or earthquake can cause traumatic abrasions or lacerations. With a disrupted healthcare system or contaminated water exposure to the wound, the incidence of infection is likely to increase. Although wounds are frequently seen in the acute phase of a disaster, they are also often encountered during the clean-up phase several weeks to months after an event.20,21 Severe infections are not prevalent; however, organisms such as Vibrio vulnificus in water-based disasters and gram-negative bacteria due to soil contamination of wounds in tornadoes and earthquakes have the potential for severe threats to life and limb.9,22
Vectorborne illnesses, such as yellow fever, malaria, and dengue fever, generally have a higher incidence during water-based disasters but can occur after any event in a vulnerable population. Although rare, the outbreak can occur up to 8 weeks after disaster.13 Regions without predisaster populations of vectors or disease are not likely to suddenly acquire such infections; thus, although there was intense media speculation of the perceived risk of malaria, yellow fever, and other vectorborne illnesses after Hurricane Katrina, these illnesses were not seen in the Gulf Coast.9 In regions where these illnesses are endemic, vector control is key, and initial postdisaster public health efforts should direct resources toward appropriate programs.
CHRONIC MEDICAL CONDITIONS
Management of the chronic health conditions of a displaced population is a significant contributor to postdisaster morbidity. Separation from medications or health technology products, removal from the usual sources of care, and disruption of the healthcare infrastructure after a catastrophic event can all contribute to exacerbations of patients' chronic disease. In an analysis of patients presenting to one of the few healthcare facilities available in the 2 months after Hurricane Katrina, 51% of all native patients had at least one preexisting medical condition, and half took at least one regular medication.20 Other studies have shown that >25% of patients presenting after a variety of natural disasters have chronic medical conditions, and "medication refill" or "chronic medical problem" is frequently among the top five diagnoses made in disaster relief health clinics.21,23
Inability to properly control chronic diseases, such as hypertension, diabetes, asthma, or coronary artery disease, may well be the biggest unanticipated health threat to a postdisaster population (Table 6-3).7 Understanding of the common chronic diseases of a region is essential for health relief efforts. In our experience, well-meaning donations of medications for conditions not normally experienced by our population (e.g., outdated psychiatric medications, older generation antiarrhythmics) went unused. Conversely, we were unable to keep enough antihypertensives or diabetic medications to supply the vast demand.
TABLE 6-3Commonly Neglected Disaster Response Medications and Supplies ||Download (.pdf) TABLE 6-3 Commonly Neglected Disaster Response Medications and Supplies
Analgesics—oral and parenteral
Oral hypoglycemics and sulfonylureas
Antibiotics, especially for soft tissue infections
Albuterol and ipratropium inhalers
An often-overlooked consequence of natural disasters is the psychological burden inflicted on survivors. Destruction of communities and property, witnessing terrifying and often fatal events, and disruption of normal life for days to years after the disaster can cause severe mental health consequences in survivors. In one study of post–Hurricane Katrina survivors, rates of posttraumatic stress disorder were 10 times the expected population incidence and on par with rates in returning Vietnam War veterans.24 Psychological disorders may be exacerbated by lack of housing and illness or death of a close family member due to the disaster.25 Disaster-related physical injury or illness may also contribute to mental health comorbidity. The number of emergency amputations due to the 2004 tsunami in an Indonesian surgical clinic quickly overwhelmed the ability of the healthcare system to provide the necessary psychological counseling for patients.26 Conversely, mental health conditions, such as major depression, may exacerbate acute or chronic physical ailments due to weakened immune systems, disconnection with the larger community and healthcare systems, or attempts to cope by using drugs or alcohol. Suicide rates may also be elevated years after a significant disaster. Any appropriate healthcare response to disasters must include sufficient resources to deal with the degree and severity of psychological disorders suffered by survivors, including children, first responders, and those who have endured severe trauma or loss.