Katrina made ill worse, study says

Published 6:34 pm Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Poorly planned or nonexistent disaster plans stripped chronic disease patients of resources, making it nearly impossible for some health care providers to adequately treat chronically ill patients following Hurricane Katrina, according to a report released Monday.

The report by the University of South Alabama College of Medicine shows how Hurricane Katrina survivors with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension and HIV infection struggled to find their daily medicines and get to doctors to manage their diseases.

The report asked patients and health care providers from Biloxi to Mobile, Ala., to chronicle their struggles after the storm.

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“Regular diabetes medicine, not insulin … wasn’t coming in. Anti-hypertensives, you couldn’t find them. You couldn’t find antidepressants. What you could find, and what we still have, is two types of antibiotics with short shelf lives,” one provider, whose name was not released, wrote in the report.

Normal disaster plans focus on acute illnesses, trauma and infectious disease, said co-author Dr. Martha Arrieta of the Center for Healthy Communities at USA, which deals with health care disparities and education in communities without adequate health care resources.

Chronic disease patients need treatment every day. They are often left to their own devices after a disaster.

Many had to focus on basic survival; as a result their diseases progressed, said co-author Dr. Errol Crook, chair of internal medicine at USA.

The stressful situations made some illnesses worse. In the report some patients with diabetes and hypertension said they ate ready-to-eat meals, which are high in salt and carbohydrates. The meals were the only thing available, leaving many to suffer uncontrolled blood sugar and high blood pressure.

“I slept a lot,” said one patient, “but I thought I was sleeping a lot because it was so hot … and I was almost in a coma and that is what it was … my pressure was really, really high.”

Stocking the right food can be important to keeping this section of the population healthy, Arrieta said. Better coordination of volunteer efforts and distribution of supplies was necessary, she added.

“Sometimes the help that was sent was not exactly what was needed,” she said.

Recommendations for improvement in the report included better disaster preparation for medical facilities and pharmacies. The report recommends stockpiling medicines, creating and practicing disaster plans, and sharing those plans with patients and surrounding facilities.

Coastal Family Health Director Joe Dawsey said even the best-intended plans can go awry. The company lost four of their nine clinics and all their medical records, including two sets of backups in buildings that ended up underwater.

“We couldn’t have planned it any worse,” he said. “I think we are in much better shape for the next disaster.”

Coastal Family Health clinics are rebuilding and will install generators above the water line left by Hurricane Katrina. The administration is also storing information much farther north.