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Officials: Chemicals bigger concern than cholera

Polluted New Orleans water could be major health hazard

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Environmental Issues

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Despite reporting five deaths from a bacteria-caused illness, public health officials said Tuesday they are more concerned about the possibility of toxic chemicals in the water covering New Orleans than they are about a cholera outbreak.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that more than a week after Hurricane Katrina hit the region health officials still don't know if the water contains toxic chemicals.

"We don't know if chemical and petroleum industries in the region have survived," she said during a conference call that included Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt and Surgeon General Richard Carmona. "We have a comprehensive environmental health team there. We're just putting together a picture now."

Gerberding downplayed the risk of cholera, saying it has not been found in the region for years, and is not likely to emerge now as a threat.

Instead, public health officials are preparing for possible outbreaks of infectious disease. They are focusing on E. coli and other diseases that can cause diarrhea, including Norwalk viruses, which have caused outbreaks on cruise ships.

Floodwater in New Orleans is contaminated with E. coli bacteria, a mayor's office employee who declined to be identified told CNN. Drinking E. coli-contaminated water can lead to serious illness and death.

Laboratory tests of water samples in New Orleans found it loaded with fecal material.

CNN gave three samples to Analytical and Environmental Testing Inc., in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which found 20,000 fecal coliform colonies per 100 milliliters of water, the highest the lab could count. That's 100 times the normal count found in water runoff from storms, the company said.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services warned of the hazards associated with flood waters: "Every effort should be made to limit contact with flood water due to potentially elevated levels of contamination associated with raw sewage and other hazardous substances."

The CDC said that five people who survived Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans died after becoming infected with Vibrio vulnificus, caused by a form of the bacteria that also causes cholera. One of the deaths occurred in Texas; the other four were in Mississippi, CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said.

"These were all either elderly or had chronic, underlying health conditions," people considered most at risk for suffering complications from such infections, he said.

The bacteria are in the same family as the bacteria that cause cholera, and the victims apparently became infected through open cuts on their skin.

Officials said they are taking steps to limit the outbreak of disease in the crowded shelters, whose residents could prove susceptible.

Authorities also are watching for respiratory illnesses, such as the common cold, influenza and tuberculosis.

Gerberding credited some shelters for taking steps to minimize those risks, citing one that had set up a long line of portable sinks for evacuees to wash in and others that gave evacuees alcohol-soaked hand wipes.

Within the crowded compounds of various shelters, health officials are working to make sure children's immunizations of measles and rubella are up to date, she said.

For adults, the focus is on tetanus, and flu vaccines, when they become available.

Gerberding reiterated what she has said in prior disasters: Bodies, while perhaps horrifying to see, pose little threat of infectious disease. The only concern would be if there was direct blood contact with a body hosting a blood disease, she said.

Reports of diarrhea, tuberculosis investigated

Reports of diarrhea and tuberculosis have emerged in Texas, though it was not clear whether the cases were more widespread than they would have been among a normal population, she said.

The reports of tuberculosis are being investigated, as some evacuees were diagnosed with the disease before to the hurricane, and were being treated for it. Ensuring they get put back on their medications is a priority, Gerberding said.

An evacuee at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas, was taken to a hospital after he began coughing up blood, Skinner said. The case has not been confirmed to be tuberculosis, he noted.

The CDC has deployed more than 140 people, and eight more teams are prepared to augment shelter staffs.

A joint task force has been set up at Kindred Hospital in New Orleans to monitor the public health situation in the city and to determine when the area might be safe to reinhabit, Leavitt said. That also will be the location for the HHS field command and the city of New Orleans public health department.

Still, meeting the immediate needs has stressed the nation's public health system, particularly in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which has seen its population rise from 500,000 to 850,000 since last week, Leavitt said. "The hospitals are under significant pressure."

There is reason to hope that a major health problem can be averted. Last December, after a tsunami inundated much of South Asia, health officials predicted that "any number of infectious diseases" would emerge, Gerberding said.

But efforts proved successful in warding off "what could have been a second wave of infectious disease," she said. "That's exactly what we're working to do here in this country."

Surgeon General Richard Carmona said hospitals are more prepared now than they would have been before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Hospitals are now required to have "bona fide disaster plans" to obtain certification, he said.

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