Over a month after Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico, its residents now have something else to fear—outbreaks of waterborne disease. Health professionals now fear the worst, as waterborne illnesses are rapidly on the rise.
On Tuesday, the death toll due to the storm and its aftermath rose to 51. The two latest victims died of leptospirosis, Puerto Rico Public Affairs Secretary Ramon Rosario told the Associated Press.
Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease most often caused by contact with contaminated water. Although spread from contact with the urine of infected animals such as rats, more often than not humans contract it through unsafe water, the World Health Organization relays. After large storms, the bacterial disease can spread through flooding.
In addition, another 76 cases of possible leptospirosis are being investigated by the authorities. Prior to Tuesday, at least one more death post-hurricane was due to the same disease.
Llamara Padro-Milano, a nurse who volunteered on an American Federation of Teachers relief trip to Puerto Rico, warned that many more people will contract the illness.
“It’s going to be higher—it’s like a perfect storm for leptospirosis,” she remarked to NBC on the number of suspected leptospirosis cases.
President of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten also visited Puerto Rico earlier in October and was surprised by what she witnessed. The aftermath of the storm caused mudslides, which further destroyed the already crippled infrastructure. She was “alarmed” at the destruction, claiming it to be a breeding ground for contamination.
Last week, the union group National Nurses United met with Democratic lawmakers for a news conference. There, they responded harshly to the government’s response to the situation in Puerto Rico. A report released by the group declared the U.S. response, as “the wealthiest country in the world” to be “unacceptable.”
“Door to door the nurses assessed and found people who may die before food, water and medicine can reach them,” the union’s vice president, Cathy Kennedy, pronounced.
Kennedy also spoke with CNN from Puerto Rico, claiming, “There is a public health crisis here. They need water. And we haven’t seen much of FEMA.”
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, leptospirosis can be treated with antibiotics. Some will even recover without treatment. The more difficult problems arise with the disease causes other complications to develop in the infected, such as meningitis or kidney or liver failure. Those who develop complications are small in number.
President Trump came under fire when he appeared to downplay the seriousness of the situation in Puerto Rico. Early this month, the president spoke with Puerto Rican officials about the storm’s recovery and aftermath in the territory. Trump told them that they “should be very proud” that the death toll wasn’t higher. Contrasting Hurricane Maria with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Trump called Katrina a “real catastrophe,” implying that the Puerto Ricans weren’t suffering as terribly as they could have been.
“Every death is a horror,” Trump said, “but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and you look at the tremendous—hundreds and hundreds of people that died—and you look at what happened here with, really, a storm that was just totally overpowering…no one has ever seen anything like this.”
Dr. Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for assistance and response for the Department of Health and Human Services, spoke with NPR about the health crisis in Puerto Rico. Kadlec expressed that the main issue on the ground was with ensuring hospitals were operational. The few that are operational are struggling to deal with the surge of patients post-Maria.
“Even though it’s been a month, we’re definitely within – still in response mode by ensuring that we can kind of assist hospitals that may have a surge in patients,” Kadlec explained to NPR’s host, Lakshmi Singh. “Our attempt is not only to save lives but to stabilize the infrastructure and also restore health-care services across the island.”
Kadlec confirmed that there are several hundred federal-medical personnel and responders in Puerto Rico. Some are from the Department of Health and Human Services, others are from the Veterans Administration, and some are “uniformed public health service officers.”
Kadlec told Singh that whether it takes three months or 12, medical personnel would remain on the ground in Puerto Rico until the hospital infrastructure is fully operational across the entire island.
“We have a long way to go,” Kadlec concluded in the interview. “And we’re working hard to take care of our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico.”