Health Risks

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Disasters often pose significant health threats. One of the most serious concerns after a disaster, especially a natural disaster, is sanitation. Disruptions in water supplies and sewage systems can pose serious health risks to victims because they decrease the amount and quality of available drinking water and create difficulties in waste disposal. Drinking water can be contaminated by breaks in sewage lines or the presence of animal cadavers in water sources. These factors can facilitate the spread of disease after a disaster. Providing potable drinking water to victims and adopting alternative methods of sanitation must be a priority after a disaster.

Food shortages are often an immediate health consequence of disasters. Existing food stocks may be destroyed or disruptions to distribution systems may prevent the delivery of food. In these situations, food relief programs should include the following elements: (1) assessment of food supplies available after the disaster, (2) determination of the nutritional needs of victims, (3) calculation of daily food needs, and (4) surveillance of victims' nutritional famine: extended period of food shortage needs assessment: formal procedure for determining needs potable: safe to drink

A woman gets her monthly distribution of food at a disaster-relief center in Baghdad. Following the 2003 war in Iraq, hundreds of relief agencies provided support to affected citizens. [Photograph by Caroline Penn. Corbis. Reproduced by permission.]

malnutrition: chronic lack of sufficient nutrients to maintain health drugs: substances whose administration causes a significant change in the body's function dehydration: loss of water antibiotic: substance that kills or prevents the growth of microorganisms bacteria: single-celled organisms without nuclei, some of which are infectious anemia: low level of red blood cells in the blood status. Some populations are particularly susceptible to malnutrition, such as children under five years of age and pregnant women. In addition to food, these populations should be given nutritional supplements whenever possible.

After a disaster, victims must be protected from hazardous climatic conditions, such as severe temperatures or precipitation. People should be kept dry, reasonably well clothed, and able to access emergency shelter.

Disasters can also cause disruptions to the health care infrastructure. Hospitals and health centers may suffer structural damage, or health personnel may be among the casualties, limiting the ability to provide health services to disaster victims. Emergency Health Kits that contain essential medical supplies and drugs are often provided to victims as part of the immediate response to disasters. Developed through the collaboration of various relief organizations, these kits are designed to meet the primary health care needs of people without access to medical facilities. Each kit covers the needs of about 10,000 persons for three months, at a cost of about fifty cents per person. The twelve essential drugs in the basic kit include anti-inflammatories, an antacid, a disinfectant, oral dehydration salts, an antimalarial, a basic antibiotic (effective against the most common bacteria), and an ointment for eye infections. These medicines can treat the most common illnesses of disaster victims, such as anemia, pain, diarrhea, fever, respiratory tract infections, eye and ear infections, measles, and skin conditions. The basic kit also includes simple medical supplies such as cotton, soap, bandages, thermometers, some medical instruments, health cards and record books, and items to help create a clean water supply.

incidence: number of new cases reported each year

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