A Storm of Contagion: Hurricanes & The Threat of Diseases

By Rebecca Kreston | August 28, 2012 4:28 pm

Storms a’comin’! For those readers who don’t know, the headquarters of this blog is located in New Orleans, Louisiana, the current target for Hurricane Isaac. It is lumbering towards us at a “take your time” speed of 7 to 10 miles per hour and in a few short hours will inundate us with a good amount of rain and ~100 mph winds. I’m hunkering down in my house with gallons of water, snacks of dubious nutritional value (cheese-in-a-can? brown sugar baked beans? eight-dollar warm white wine? really?) and with a pile of board games ready to sit out the next 40 hours with family, friends and my boxer.

While I might be out of commission for a few hours/days, I thought I’d do a quick round-up of some of the infectious diseases that like paying a visit to regions that have recently undergone a hurricane event. Though most people suffer physical injuries while setting up their home prior to landfall or during the hurricane event, there are a few select buggies that can result in illness post-landfall.

Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease spread by water contaminated with animal urine, typically rodents. When abrasions in the skin or contact with the eyes and mucous membranes are exposed to contaminated water, the bacteria gains entry to the body and infects the blood, cerebrospinal fluid and kidneys. It can be fatal if not treated early. Though I’m often loathe to refer people to Wikipedia for information, the article on the disease is quite thorough. (I’m also in a hurry here, Isaac’s gonna be here in about 2.5 hours!) The disease is particularly common during widespread flooding and during the monsoon season. It is most prevalent in Southeast Asia, particularly in the Philippines and India.

Stomach and respiratory illnesses may result in those temporarily residing in evacuation shelters, particularly if they’re overcrowded. Norovirus, that of cruise-ship infamy, is a typical culprit in such situations. Check out this neat article on surveilling for such diseases among 27,000 New Orleanians that evacuated to Houston’s Astrodome and Reliant Park Complex following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The big concern for public health officials in Louisiana post-landfall will be a potential surge in West Nile Virus cases following the hurricane. This summer has been the year of WNV, with the CDC viewing the outbreak as the worst in US history. Though Texas has been dealt quite a nasty hand, Louisiana has also seen a big spike in WNV cases. Stagnant water remaining from heavy rain and the destruction left behind by hurricanes creates ideal conditions for mosquito breeding and egg-laying as was seen in the wake of Hurricane Irene in 2011. Ensuring that these pockets of breeding grounds are destroyed and keeping an eye on the mosquito population will be a key priority following the storm.

Rest assured, though, it is likely that nothing will happen aside from some flooding and downed power lines (fingers crossed!). In fact, the CDC has a nice calming little PDF explaining that there really is nothing to worry about with infectious diseases and hurricanes. Click here to download it. The government is always right, right?

See ya on the other side!


Murray KO, Kilborn C, DesVignes-Kendrick M, Koers E, Page V, Selwyn BJ, Shah UA, & Palacio H (2009). Emerging disease syndromic surveillance for Hurricane Katrina evacuees seeking shelter in Houston’s Astrodome and Reliant Park Complex. Public health reports (Washington, D.C. : 1974), 124 (3), 364-71 PMID: 19445411

  • http://stormiidae.blogspot.com Storm

    I sure hope this turns out to be a minor event for you folks in the storm path. Either way, Jesten Peters is taking credit for shifting the hurricane away from Florida so be sure to drop her a ‘thank you’ note once the weather clears.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/bodyhorrors/ bodyhorrors

      Storm, I had written a brief reply to you and, at the moment that I pressed “Post Comment”, the power failed. Four days later and here I am! And I now know who to thank for the hurricane and massive power outages – Jesten Peters!

  • Matt

    I don’t know what sort of boardgames your family like, but I heartily recommend Pandemic :) It’s good fun.


    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/bodyhorrors/ bodyhorrors

      Hey Matt! Excellent suggestion! We mostly stuck to domino’s and Ricochet Robot but for our next hurricane I’ll be sure to have that in our arsenal. Thanks for reading!


Body Horrors

Body Horrors looks at the history, anthropology and geography of infectious diseases and parasites.

About Rebecca Kreston

Rebecca Kreston is an infectious disease scholar trained in microbiology and epidemiology. She obtained her Biology degree from Reed College and her Masters of Science in Tropical Medicine from Tulane University. She's lived in tropical jungles, beaches and deserts around the world and has been exposed to several of the diseases that she studies. She currently lives in New Orleans, is a fourth year medical student and regularly battles insects of the Diptera, Siphonaptera and Hymenoptera orders.

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