If you’re from Southeast Texas, then the image of emergency responders wading waist-deep through floodwaters is probably a familiar site to you. Usually, this wading is unavoidable, a necessary evil that must be performed in order for emergency services to be rendered.
But when Dr. Laila Woc-Colburn saw a newly viral video posted at Lamar University which showed people diving into the deep floodwaters at a local underpass for the fun of it, she had more than a negative reaction.
Woc-Colburn is an associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine, and specializes in infectious diseases. The academic says that when seeing a video like the one described, what comes to mind is all of the things that you can contract: bacterial infections like staph, vibrio, fungal infections, and Leptospira.
Woc-Colburn co-authored a study in 2018 called “Infectious Diseases in the Aftermath of Hurricanes in the United States,” which details the fact that hurricanes “facilitate the spread of infectious pathogens through population displacement, flooding, and trauma.”
What Diseases Can You Get?
“If you have chronic infections, liver disease or you’re pregnant, your immune system is low,” Woc-Colburn says. “Then you’re exposed to water in the Gulf Coast area where vibrio is very common because of the (warmer) water temperature. It’s a very rapid infection.”
Vibrio is an infection that manifests as red, blistered skin. While an early case can be treated and cured within a matter of days, if left untreated it can become very serious very fast. If someone infected waits too long for a diagnosis, then the consequences might even include amputation of infected areas. According to the CDC, roughly 1 in 5 with this type of infection will die within days of getting sick.
For patients with diabetes or anyone who suffers from poor blood circulation, infections might spread even faster. These can and usually do come with fever and fatigue in addition to the usual redness/blistering. However, even if you’re a typically healthy person you need to be cautious. You can get sick too – it all depends on what’s actually in the water. This can be a great number of things, including pesticides, bacteria from agricultural areas, animal stool, and countless chemicals from industrial plants, gas stations, and other places that harbor them.
“Another one we do see during flooding is (the bacteria) leptospira,” said Woc-Colburn. “Mice and rats carry leptospira in their urine, and it’s found in the water.”
Leptospirosis is a disease that can affect both animals and humans. Scarily, it can sometimes have no symptoms, which can obviously make it very difficult to detect. The bacterial illness can enter the body through one’s epidermis or mucous membranes, and can do so easily through an open wound. Infections from this disease usually start from being exposed to contaminated flood water.
The symptoms are run-of-the-mill, and can include headache, fever, chills, etc. Basically, the symptoms can be a million things you might mistake for other illnesses, so it’s important to go to a hospital if you’ve been exposed to flood water of any kind and for any duration.
How Else Can These Diseases Spread?
Yet another thing to be careful of is debris that can get caught in the skin’s dermis. This debris can cause abscesses or infections of the soft tissue. Additionally, if you ever accidentally ingest flood water, you might be exposing yourself to immediate diarrhea and vomiting … this can be especially dangerous to those with weak immune systems, as dehydration is a factor of both.
Houston’s humid atmosphere has made mold a near constant threat, but it can get especially bad after a flood. If you’re cleaning out your home after a flooding, then you should invest in a respiratory mask. Additionally, Mold inspection and Testing Houston weise, residents should hire agents of the highest quality. According to AP News’ interview with housing inspectors, everyone needs to ensure that home dwellers do not get sick from any mold presence. After the floods, it’s sure to be an issue for most in the raging waters’ path.
“If your house took on water, the first thing you’ll want to do is try to get the dry wall out — that space is where the mold goes,” says Woc-Colburn. “If you’re helping someone whose house was flooded, you want to use an N95 mask because the air might be full of mold by that time.”
In the two years it has been since Hurricane Harvey came through Texas, Woc-Colburn has seen patients with fungal infections that didn’t develop until six to twelve months after the storm. Some of these people only has one to two inches of flood water. These fungal infections can be very dangerous to anyone with preexisting lung conditions, so be wary!
Overall, just don’t expose yourself to contaminated water. The best way to do this is to try to avoid flood water – and definitely don’t go diving into it headfirst.
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