Development of protocols for future disasters urgently called for

April 6, 2011

Dr. Howard Osofsky, Professor and Chair of Psychiatry at LSU Health Sciences Center New Orleans School of Medicine, is an author of a review article published in the April 7, 2011 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine that urgently calls for the development of protocols to deal with the health effects of disasters – before the next one occurs. One year after the largest and most devastating oil spill in United States history, the magnitude of the impact of the Deepwater Horizon Gulf Oil Spill on human health, the environment, and the economy remains unknown. Along with the 9/11 World Trade Center terrorist attack and Hurricane Katrina, this most recent US catastrophe underscores both the lack of knowledge about long-term effects as well as the need for better plans to improve interventions and services to deal with the consequences of such crises.

The article reports what is currently known about the toxicologic consequences of exposures in the Gulf Oil Spill as well as what is known from other spills. However, the authors note the complexity of assessing the full effects of exposures due to the presence of all five elements of a complete exposure pathway, multiple sources of contaminants, and multiple points of exposure. As well, a disproportionately large under-lying disease burden in the population of the Gulf States makes it particularly vulnerable to environmental and natural disasters. The authors report documented symptoms among some 52,000 responders from a number of sources, including self-identified health problems. Additionally, vulnerability to heat stress in the high summer temperatures in the Gulf compounded by personal protective equipment also contributed to health risks, particularly among inexperienced volunteers.

Of particular concern are the symptoms among response workers and community members after oil disasters. Calls to mental health and domestic violence hotlines in the Gulf area have increased since the oil spill, in keeping with reports of increased domestic violence, mental illness, and substance abuse after other disasters.

"Many communities affected by the Gulf oil spill were still recovering form Hurricane Katrina at the time of the Gulf oil spill, which increased the complexity of the response," notes Dr. Osofsky. "We found that 48% of students returning to schools in New Orleans, St. Bernard, and Plaquemines parishes had mental health symptoms in 2005-06. In 2009-10, before the oil spill, 30% continued to have symptoms, suggesting that a complex or repeated trauma increases vulnerability to mental health conditions."

The authors recommend a number of steps be taken now -- rapid development and implementation of protocols for baseline clinical evaluations, including respiratory functions; biospecimen banking; short and long-term medical surveillance and monitoring of workers; and development of psychosocial interventions. In addition to research, clinical and referral networks addressing immediate physical and mental health symptoms and untreated existing health conditions such as asthma and hypertension are critical, they conclude, especially for vulnerable populations.

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Exploring the potential of human echolocation

June 25, 2017
People who are visually impaired will often use a cane to feel out their surroundings. With training and practice, people can learn to use the pitch, loudness and timbre of echoes from the cane or other sounds to navigate ...

Team eradicates hepatitis C in 10 patients following lifesaving transplants from infected donors

April 30, 2017
Ten patients at Penn Medicine have been cured of the Hepatitis C virus (HCV) following lifesaving kidney transplants from deceased donors who were infected with the disease. The findings point to new strategies for increasing ...

'bench to bedside to bench': Scientists call for closer basic-clinical collaborations

March 24, 2017
In the era of genome sequencing, it's time to update the old "bench-to-bedside" shorthand for how basic research discoveries inform clinical practice, researchers from The Jackson Laboratory (JAX), National Human Genome Research ...

The ethics of tracking athletes' biometric data

January 18, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—Whether it is a FitBit or a heart rate monitor, biometric technologies have become household devices. Professional sports leagues use some of the most technologically advanced biodata tracking systems to ...

Financial ties between researchers and drug industry linked to positive trial results

January 18, 2017
Financial ties between researchers and companies that make the drugs they are studying are independently associated with positive trial results, suggesting bias in the evidence base, concludes a study published by The BMJ ...

Best of Last Year – The top Medical Xpress articles of 2016

December 23, 2016
(Medical Xpress)—It was a big year for research involving overall health issues, starting with a team led by researchers at the UNC School of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health who unearthed more evidence that ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.