Five health threats and epidemics after natural disasters


Haiti’s cholera outbreak was fueled by two key challenges often posed by disasters: unsafe water and lack of sanitation. The 2010 earthquake left many without access to clean water or bathrooms—including those working and staying at United Nations camps.

While it’s impossible to know for sure, a report by the United Nations suggests that a peacekeeper brought cholera with them to Haiti, and because of a lack of sanitation services, the bacteria made its way into a nearby river, contaminating the local water supply. At the time, Haitians downstream of the camp used the river water to drink, wash, bathe, and irrigate crops. As more and more people became infected, more bacteria got into the water supply, and within months, the country was facing a widespread epidemic.

In the wake of a disaster, thoroughly washing your hands or boiling your water can seem like almost an afterthought, but clean water is critical to keep death tolls from rising further. Diarrhea can lead to life-threatening dehydration, especially in young infants.

While Haiti’s outbreak was due to cholera, a lot of things can cause diarrhea. Flooded garages, machinery, or industrial sites can lead to toxins getting into floodwaters. Even in industrialized countries like the United States, you should take steps to prevent diarrhea: Wash your hands thoroughly after coming in contact with floodwaters and before eating, disinfect any flooded surfaces or objects—such as toys—before using them, and never swim or let kids play in flooded areas.

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