Why the Houston Floods Pose a Particularly Troubling Public Health Risk

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US Editorial Team Lead

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared a public health state of emergency in Texas this past weekend, prompted by significant floods brought on by Hurricane Harvey.

“HHS is taking the necessary measures and has mobilized the resources to provide immediate assistance to those affected by Hurricane Harvey,” Secretary Tom Price said in a statement. “We recognize the gravity of the situation in Texas, and the declaration of a public health emergency will provide additional flexibility and authority to help those who have been impacted by the storm.”

Water-borne infections, injury, and the availability of clean water are all concerns for public health health officials. In addition, everything from crawfish and alligators to fire ants have been reported lurking in the sometimes chest-deep Houston flood waters. Standing water always raises the risk of mosquito-borne illness, including West Nile virus, which saw a spike in cases after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The most prominent health concern, during and immediately following events like Hurricane Harvey, is mental health. For those with pre-existing mental illnesses, the stress of the storm can intensify their symptoms. And for people without known mental health conditions, the storm can cause stress, anxiety, and depression.

Medical care in Houston is world-renowned. People from around the globe travel to prestigious area hospitals for top notch care. But amid the chaos of Hurricane Harvey, hospitals in the area have received an onslaught of patients in need of care without the necessary resources to properly treat them. Some medical facilities were forced to evacuate. Others report flooding akin to that seen in residential areas. The high flood waters also impede ambulances from driving on highways necessary to access people in need of medical care.

“I’ve never heard so few sirens as I have in the last few days, which is upsetting,” William McKeon, president and chief executive at Texas Medical Center in Houston, told The New York Times. “We can be dry and open but if you can’t deliver patients to the medical center, that’s our biggest concern.”

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