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Published: Thursday January 22, 2015 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Thursday January 22, 2015 MYT 7:14:30 PM

Health problems that can rise up in the aftermath of a flood

I was one of those affected by the recent floods. My house was inundated with water, and I came home to find most of my possessions either lost or destroyed. I am glad I bought house insurance. Now I hear that we will be prone to disease because of the flood. Is there anything I should be looking out for?

A flood destroys property, land and lives, but in most cases, a lot of attention is placed on destruction to property, and less on the diseases which can possibly arise from floods. But the latter may prove fatal if not managed.

Generally, when a flood occurs in an industrialized area, there is not so much risk of infectious diseases.

However, the water can be contaminated with industrialized pollutants such as sewage, asbestos, oil, fertilisers, rust and pesticides.

For example, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the flood waters contained lead and bacteria.

When a flood occurs in a less industrialized area (e.g. rural and developing countries), the risk of infection is higher.

As an example, during the Bangladesh flood of 1988, diarrhoea and respiratory tract infections were prevalent, leading to many deaths.

In developing countries, there are problems with sanitation. So water-borne diseases can spread faster.

What kind of health problems can we expect after a flood?

First, we have to understand where these health hazards can possibly come from in the aftermath of floods. These include:

> Unsafe food – Flood water contains bacteria, human excrement, animal excrement, dirt, and farm and industrial chemicals. These can come in contact with our food crops, which will then be dangerous to eat.

If food that needs to be refrigerated is left without refrigeration due to power outages, they can also spoil and be unsafe to consume.

Even if you keep your food in jars, bottles, tins and plastic bags, you should also dispose of them if they have come in contact with flood water. This is because they may have been contaminated by mould even if the outer package appears dry.

> Unsafe water – Many diseases are waterborne. And it’s not just the water. Floodwater can wash over utensils like plates, spoons, forks or cups and spread diseases like cholera, dysentery, typhoid and hepatitis A.

> Vectors – These include mosquitoes, flies and other animals. Dengue can spread from mosquitoes breeding from stagnant water.

Rats can spread leptospirosis. Malaria outbreaks can also occur six to eight weeks after a flood because this allows time for the mosquitoes to breed.

Victims may have to sleep outside because of destroyed homes, thus exposing them more to mosquito bites.

> Mould and mildew – Don’t underestimate mould. It can grow in as short as 24 hours in a damp area. These can release spores which trigger off asthma and other respiratory diseases.

> Carbon monoxide poisoning – This is a problem in developed countries. When there is a power outage, people resort to using gas stoves and engines in small, enclosed spaces.

This can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. So you have to watch out that you have plenty of ventilation when you cook in a small room.

> “Dangerous” homes – After a flood, electrical power lines can fall. You have to be careful about turning on the electricity when standing in floodwater. There can also be gas leaks.

> Mental stress – People tend to underestimate this because the physical devastation from a flood is so overwhelming. But this can be an after-effect which can occur weeks or months after the flood.

There can be anxiety and depression. There is also an increase in the incidence of sleeplessness and suicide.

Is there a significant risk of a diarrhoea outbreak after a flood?

There definitely is a risk. However, it should be noted that the World Health Organization, which has recorded all major flood incidents in the world, has noted that the risk of such an outbreak is low unless clean water has been contaminated.

For example, there were 14 major floods from 1970 to 1994, but only one (Sudan, 1980) led to a major diarrhoeal outbreak.

Nevertheless, we are talking about widespread epidemics. Individually, if you are in contact with contaminated water, it can still happen to you.

Is there anything we can do to reduce the risk of disease post-flood?

Yes. Use chlorine to disinfect your water. The government will treat piped water. However, you have to treat your own if you are using wellwater or water from other sources.

Make sure you are not breeding mosquitoes by not allowing water to accumulate anywhere. You can spray insecticides. Make sure you boil your water and thoroughly cook your food.

Dr YLM graduated as a medical doctor, and has been writing for many years on various subjects such as medicine, health, compu-ters and entertainment. For further information, e-mail The information contained in this column is for general educational purposes only. Neither The Star nor the author gives any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star and the author disclaim all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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Residents help each other out from their inundated neighborhoods after rains spawned by a tropical storm, locally known as Seniang, caused flooding in Misamis Oriental on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao on December 29, 2014. Three people were killed, one was missing and thousands fled their homes as the tropical storm battered the southern Philippines with strong winds and heavy rain on December 29, officials said.  AFP PHOTO / ERWIN MASCARINAS

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