The Long-Term Public Health Impacts of Natural Disasters
By Sarah McCool, Clinical Assistant Professor
When natural disasters strike, concerns associated with injury and fatality, restriction of movement and loss of modern conveniences such as electricity are top of mind. But beyond these immediate concerns, there are also both short- and long-term public health implications.
These concerns can be magnified when there is loss of infrastructure. We have recently seen a number of natural disasters, particularly hurricanes, that have threatened the health and safety of populations. One immediate concern is communicable disease transmission.
When large groups of people are displaced, diseases can spread easily. If displaced populations migrate to other areas, disease can travel with them. This means that disease can easily be spread to other areas and populations outside of the immediate disaster zone. Disease outbreaks in the aftermath of natural disasters are often associated with population movements.
Damage to the water supply and sanitation systems are also public health concerns. Lack of clean, available water can affect disease outbreaks and transmission. Clean water is the factor that is most often attributed to the significant increase in life expectancy during the 20th century because it significantly reduced disease transmission.
It isn’t difficult to imagine the catastrophic results lack of clean water can have on people. Damage to existing water supply is cause for concern, as water-borne diseases can spread quickly and easily. Dangerous chemicals can easily seep into the water, posing threats to human health. In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake in 2010, cholera (a waterborne disease) spread quickly, sickening hundreds of thousands of people and killing more than 10,000.
Damage to infrastructure can cause significant health issues. Damaged or destroyed medical facilities prevent timely receipt of emergency medical care. In addition, people may not be able to access essential medications. This can exacerbate chronic diseases such as diabetes and leave large numbers of people without access to the medicines they use to manage their conditions.
Food shortages can also result from natural disasters. In the aftermath of natural disasters, the long-term concern shifts to malnutrition. This is particularly true in regions with inadequate infrastructure and response resources. In areas where damage is so severe that getting supplies to people is difficult, malnutrition and food shortages can be very real concerns.
When large groups of people flee a disaster zone, they may place strains on existing health care systems. As populations migrate, they travel to areas that may be inadequately structured to handle their health concerns. This can overwhelm existing health care systems and resources.
We need to ensure that adequate resources and funding are available to assist in the aftermath of natural disasters. They are difficult to predict, respond to and manage. The health needs of people magnify during and after natural disasters. The ability to appropriately and swiftly respond to these concerns is critical.
Sarah McCool, a clinical assistant professor in the School of Public Health at Georgia State University, has worked extensively in international public health, including projects in child protection/anti-trafficking in Haiti and tuberculosis surveillance and prevention in Asia. She continues to work to support health and education projects in developing countries worldwide. McCool was previously executive director for a Haiti-based non-governmental organization that provides primary care to the rural southwest population.