Soldier Assisting in Relief Effort Gets Rare Bacterial Disease

Since the earthquake of January 12, 2010 that devastated Haiti and resulted in more than 230,000 deaths, thousands of volunteers and military personnel have traveled to the distressed country to assist in the relief effort. The desperate and unhealthy living conditions make the relief effort that much more challenging for the volunteers and military in Haiti.

Soon after the earthquake, U.S. Army Warrant Officer Christopher Lust was assisting the relief efforts in Haiti when he contracted an unusual bacterial infection that caused him to tremble violently and vomit blood. This infection, known as leptospirosis, is caused by exposure to water contaminated with animal urine. If left untreated, leptospirosis can cause kidney damage and liver and brain failure. Once doctors correctly diagnosed Officer Lust with leptospirosis, he was given large doses of antibiotics for treatment, and his condition improved rapidly.

The potential spread of contagious diseases following natural disasters is a major concern of government, military and health officials. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), risks of viral or bacterial infections are high when thousands of people live in temporary tent cities without proper sanitation, clean drinking water, or access to medical treatment.

There are over 600,000 people living in temporary shelters in Haiti and only 10% of them (62,000) have been vaccinated, health officials said. The campaign includes vaccination for tetanus, diphtheria, and rubella. No outbreaks have been reported, according to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), but there have been scattered reports of people suffering from respiratory infections and diarrhea as well as unconfirmed cases of measles and malaria.

Emergency measures are being taken by relief organizations and volunteers to help reduce the threat of waterborne disease. Sanitation facilities are critical as is access to safe drinking water. Bottled waterhas been provided, but this is very costly and too slow to serve such a large number of people. As a more long term strategy, self-contained mobile water treatment plants have been set up in high need areas, such as temporary hospitals, schools, and community centers. “To prevent the spread of disease, relief and health workers are distributing water treated with chlorine and digging latrines to serve every 25-50 people,” Jon Andrus, PAHO deputy director, said. Chlorination of drinking water has been proven to be the most cost effective way to prevent waterborne disease in the aftermath of a natural disaster. These measures will protect not only the earthquake victims, who must pick up their lives and go forward, but also the volunteers and military, like Officer Lust, who come to their aid.

(Joan Rose, PhD, is the Homer Nowlin Chair in Water Research at Michigan State University and a member of the Water Quality and Health Council)