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The Next Thing to Worry About Post-Sandy? Infectious Disease

Natural disasters, like Hurricane Sandy, are common worldwide and leave the affected public vulnerable to the harsh realities of nature, including the onslaught of infectious diseases. The reality of any disaster of this magnitude is that public health measures are all but forgotten as people do everything they can to survive. The viruses will surely arrive before the area has recovered.

The New York area has suffered more than its fair share of heartache over the centuries but nothing has caused more devastation and heartbreak than Hurricane Sandy, which in just a few hours, turned much of the region into a disaster zone. The wind and rain was only one aspect of the threat; the predicted surge of water was more extensive than anyone suspected, epitomized by the mini-tsunami that all but destroyed regions of Staten Island.

I reached out to my friend and fellow blogger, Sasha Davidoff who writes New York Love to find out primarily if she was safe but also to learn her experience from the storm. Much to my surprise, she watched the storm come in and was a firsthand witness to some of its destructive power.

"I had just moved to Long Island the day before Sandy came ashore and was more fascinated with the power nature has over us than fearing it. I was on a boardwalk taking pictures and making videos in the hopes of contributing to my blog. Then everything changed in a heartbeat as the ocean surged into the street. I and others started running because we needed to get off the boardwalk. The water was up to my knees within few seconds and within minutes water flooded the street. It was a titanic experience and I felt like I was on a sinking ship."

Sandy Comes Ashore. Video: Sasha Davidoff

Her experience was just one of millions of people who were taken off guard by the storm's ravages although their plight was not unique. Natural disasters are common worldwide and leave the affected public vulnerable to the harsh realities of nature, including the onslaught of infectious diseases.

As learned from another catastrophic hurricane, Katrina, the health problems due to germs may not be immediate but over time, the problems emerge and at times, overwhelm the public. In the wake of the storm that crippled New Orleans, there were several outbreaks of infection from the relatively benign skin infections to fast spreading gastrointestinal infections, which attacked several shelters, including the Astrodome in Houston where many of the evacuees fled.

Flooding Rushes onto Long Island. Photo: Sasha Davidoff

The reality of any disaster of this magnitude is that public health measures such as hygiene are all but forgotten as people do everything they can to survive. In the absence of safe water, people will look for any possible sources even if they are contaminated. Food is less important than water but in times of shortage, almost anything that can offer sustenance will be considered. Crowding can also lead to widespread outbreaks of any pathogen.

The healthy will be bothered but those with weak immune systems face a more critical problem; without proper medical support such as the closing of hospitals there are few options. While limited to lesser developed countries, the number of infectious disease deaths occurring days to weeks afterwards may be higher than those encountered during the event itself.

Sasha faced this danger almost the moment Sandy left. Despite having a structurally safe home and no signs of permanent damage, she was no longer safe from infectious disease.

"When we woke up, we had no power or water. We were all told to leave as it was dangerous to stay since the water wouldn't be back for a while. Contamination of the water supply and of the area in general made it particularly hard to turn any utilities, including water back on. I had no choice but to leave. Right now, I'm told I'm not going to be able to go return home for weeks or even months."

Debris lines the streets. Photo: Sasha Davidoff

As it stands, there are two significant threats facing New Yorkers as well as those in New Jersey. The impact of the flooding of waters that are known to be of poor quality brings pathogens such as fecal bacteria, waterborne viruses and environmental fungi onto land and into homes and buildings.

Even as the waters recede, the germs stick around and pose a threat as they are picked up by the hands and then ingested or inhaled as those hands come into contact with the mouth and nose. The other is the weather, which is at best frigid at this time of year. The cold and flu seasons are just starting in these areas and while at the moment there are no outbreaks reported, the viruses will surely arrive before the area has recovered.

There are some bright sides. The arrival of cold weather will inhibit the growth of many pathogens and will allow crews to clean up areas without much threat of exposure to dangerously high levels of bacteria and fungi. While the people may be shivering from the low temperatures, they will at least be kept free of other more egregious diseases.

In addition, there are no signs of a return of the deadly cholera outbreaks that affected the city during the 1800s. Cholera continues to be a leading killer in tropical countries, including Haiti, which continues to fight the disease two years after a devastating earthquake but thanks to sewers and other water dispersal systems to keep the public safe, the bacterium has all but disappeared. Unfortunately, as Sasha points out, that same infrastructure continues to be used today and desperately needs to be changed in this new global reality.

"It's a wake up call for New York to improve infrastructure. We now know to expect these natural disasters more and more due to the nature changes we are going through. From the sewers to the subways, we need to ensure that the entire area is as safe as possible for the next time. But without proper preparation and that means improving much of what is clearly outdated, we won't be able to do that."

At the moment, Sasha is in the Boston area and looks forward to going home when all is once again safe. She knows that she may have to be away from her beloved city for a while but she will never lose her attachment to the city. Despite everything that has happened, she knows that there is really no other place she would rather be.

"My blog is called New York Love and it describes exactly how I feel about the city and the surrounding region. We have been hit hard but we have always shown resilience and will come back. For now, while the threat of illness is there, it'll have to be a long distance relationship with me."

To donate to the relief efforts, you can contact the Red Cross.