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A Closer Look at the Long-Term Health Consequences of Natural Disasters

March 15, 2018

Over the course of 2017, natural disasters in the US caused damage worth at least $306 billion. This was the costliest year on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). There were 16 separate events during 2017 with damage exceeding $1 billion each. Some of these record-breaking events included the most destructive wildfire in the history of California; Hurricane Harvey; Hurricane Maria; and the floods in Oklahoma, Missouri, and Arkansas.

Some sources consider NOAA’s damage estimate to be conservative, and that more accurate estimates place the damage in excess of $400 billion. As the climate changes, its volatility is likely to be less stable, and the number of weather-related natural disasters is expected to remain high.

The immediate consequences of natural disasters are obvious, and the scope of devastation can be assessed within a short period of time. There are long-term implications, however, especially when it comes to health issues and damage to the health service system.

The Long-Term Health Effects of Natural Disasters

Residual problems stemming from a natural disaster are the ones that will most often lead to long-term consequences. Most people are familiar with the immediate responses to natural disasters; the measures aimed at containing the effects of the disaster itself. A variety of emergency interventions are needed to stabilize the population that was affected the most.

The next phase of recovery is often called the redevelopment phase. During this phase, mental health issues stemming from the devastating occurrence become obvious. The same applies to communicable diseases. Outbreaks of malaria, measles, and cholera are possible after a natural disaster, especially if vaccination efforts do not take place in a timely fashion.

Mental health problems rank among the most widespread long-term effects of natural disasters. The loss of loved ones, homes, and livelihoods can alter the lives of multiple individuals. Grief and shock are normal in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster. When people fail to return to normalcy, however, mental health practitioners must deal with the lasting psychological impact of the disaster.

Hygienic problems and the loss of basic infrastructure, on the other hand, increase the risk of communicable diseases developing and spreading. Vaccination and the restoration of proper hygienic measures are the two most important ways in which such health hazards can be addressed and eradicated.

Research also suggests that the rate of poisoning and infection increases in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Individuals who suffer from chronic medical conditions are particularly vulnerable to additional medical complications. After Hurricane Katrina, 14 percent of emergency department visits involved responding to a flare-up of a person’s chronic medical condition. Almost 30 percent of these patients needed immediate admission to emergency care, a percentage that is much higher than usual.

Effects on the Health Service System

Health service infrastructures can suffer significant damage during natural disasters, which can have prolonged effects after the disaster is contained. In addition to facilities being damaged, valuable equipment and medicines can be lost.

Haiti is a real-life example of the profound consequences of losing health infrastructure in the wake of a natural disaster. After an earthquake, Haiti suffered from a cholera outbreak. The earthquake itself was not the cause of the disease crisis, but the loss of medical infrastructure was. Since Haiti’s medical infrastructure was in a poor state before the earthquake, and continues to be inadequate today, measures to counter the outbreak have been ineffective, and remain so.

Social factors also contribute to problems with health service during and after natural disasters. Large populations usually leave the impacted area. As the residents depart, the incentives to rebuild the healthcare service system diminish. The resources for rebuilding the general community diminish, too—which means the time needed to properly restore healthcare infrastructure will be extended. Not only is infrastructure recovery slow, but recovering human resources can be challenging, since many medical professionals eventually leave the disaster area. This is precisely what happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Recovery after a Disaster: Available Resources

Local and state health departments can access certain resources for more effective disaster recovery. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has developed a thorough Community Recovery Management Toolkit that is a compilation of guidance, tools, and training that local communities can rely on to speed the progress of post-disaster recovery.

The toolkit is under the management of the Community Planning and Capacity Building Recovery Support Function (CPCB RSF). It divides efforts into three steps: organization, recovery planning, and recovery management.

Information is available regarding access to grants, applying for financial assistance, organizing local leadership, communicating with the public, assessing the most pressing recovery needs, and determining projects that will contribute to long-term infrastructure and communal recovery.

While much of the focus is on the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster (understandably so), there could be profound and long-lasting consequences that can plague communities for years, particularly with regard to the mental health of the affected population and the delivery of health care services. Adequate medical infrastructure recovery is one of the best ways to manage the long-term health effects of a natural disaster. This approach should be a primary focus of any recovery effort.

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