Monday, September 05, 2005

HHS Hypes Fictitious Public-Health Fears

Last week Mike Leavitt, Secretary of Health and Human Services, gave a press conference and announced:
'We are gravely concerned about the potential for cholera, typhoid, and dehydrating diseases that could come as a result of the stagnant water and the conditions.'
In addition to cholera and typhoid, officials are concerned about other bacterial and parasitic infections, such as salmonella, E. coli, cryptosporidiosis, or strongyloidiasis, to name a few, said Roger Lewis, Ph.D., an associate professor and director of the Environmental Health Laboratory at Saint Louis University School of Public Health in Missouri.
Even fecal matter from the dead can pose a health risk. Typically, a decomposing body does not pose a health risk. However, Dr. Lewis said, there could be a potential threat if the dead cannot be located and collected quickly and if the decomposing body had a virulent infection at the time of death. Rescue workers who come into contact with the dead, Dr. Lewis said, and are unaware of any infection, could be susceptible.

Even if the death toll "remains in the low hundreds, the waterborne illnesses are significant," Dr. Lewis said.

[source; free registration required]
Now it appears, however, that they were full of shit (NPI):
Aside from the emotional distress caused by dead bodies in the streets, they should be the least of the public health worries for the survivors here of Hurricane Katrina.

What people need to understand is that "for almost all infectious agents, when the body dies, so does the agent," said Michael T. Osterholm, Ph.D., director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Harmful bacteria and viruses cannot survive without a living host, a point that health officials need to make clear to a confused public, said Dr. Osterholm, a nationally known epidemiologist.

The comments by Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt on Wednesday regarding government fears of typhoid and cholera "were unfortunate," Dr. Osterholm said. "The hurricane doesn't invent infectious agents. They have to be there. Cholera and typhoid are not problems in the United States."

Irwin Redlener, M.D., a pediatrician who is director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University in New York, agreed that decomposing remains do not pose a significant threat to the general public.

"There's a lot of mythology of so-called dangers of dead bodies that have been left, but really there is not much to worry about," Dr. Redlener said. "The psychological issues are the prevailing concern and are much greater than any possible infection risk from the dead."
That is to say, there's still plenty to worry about from a public-health point of view, just none of the things HHS actually told us to worry about. Can you feel the magnitude of my not-surprise?

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