07 Sep 2005 21:40:46 GMT

Source: Reuters

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Sept 7 (Reuters) – Three people have died from bacterial infections in Gulf states after Hurricane Katrina, and tests confirm that the water flooding New Orleans is a stew of sewage-borne bacteria, federal officials said on Wednesday.

A fourth person in the Gulf region is suspected to be infected with Vibrio vulnificus, a common marine bacteria, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Julie Gerberding told reporters, citing reports from state health officials in Mississippi and Texas.

“This does not represent an outbreak,” Gerberding told a news conference. “It does not spread from person to person.”

“People who are compromised in immunity can sometimes develop very severe infections from these bacteria. We see cases of this from time to time along the coast,” she added.

And tests of the waters flooding New Orleans show it is, as expected, loaded with raw sewage.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson said all the tests of waters in flooded residential areas of New Orleans exceeded by at least 10 times the safe levels of E. coli and other so-called coliform bacteria, found in the human gut and used as an indicator of sewage contamination. They also have high levels of lead.

“Human contact with the floodwaters should be avoided as much as possible,” Johnson told the news conference. “This may seem obvious … but no one should drink the floodwaters, especially children.”

Gerberding said the message was clear.

“For evacuees who haven’t left the city yet, you must do so,” he said. “This water is not going away any time soon.”


Rescuers are scrubbing down evacuees with soap and water at the first possible opportunity, and Gerberding said anyone who comes into contact with the water should also wash.

But the danger of infection also continues in the crowded shelters where refugees are staying for the foreseeable future.

“Right now in the shelters where most of the people are located we have seen sporadic reports of gastrointestinal illness,” Gerberding said. The conditions are specially ripe, she said, for norovirus, a type of virus that includes the Norwalk virus that occasionally causes outbreaks on cruise ships.

“Norovirus is not generally life-threatening,” said Gerberding. But stressed and fragile refugees will be especially vulnerable, she said.

In Houston, David Persse, who oversees medical issues for Houston, said the city that has accommodated more displaced people than any other has not seen any evidence of disease from infected flood waters.

Yet with thousands living in huge shelters such as the Astrodome, a former baseball stadium, risk of disease spreading remained high, he said.

“You are never over the hump as long as they are living in a very crowded living setting,” he said in an interview. “As long as we continue to have that, we are going to continue to be at risk.”

Respiratory illness could be another problem, and the CDC’s Gerberding said as soon as this season’s influenza vaccine becomes available, they will be encouraging refugees to be vaccinated quickly.

Another concern is the mental health of refugees, National Institute of Mental Health Director Dr. Thomas Insel said. Simple measures can ensure that the immense stress of losing homes, livelihoods and loved ones does not turn into something more serious, he said.

“For the vast, vast majority of people the word is resilience here. Most people will recover completely.” (Additional reporting by Adam Tanner in Houston)