Immediately following the December 26, 2004 tsunami that hit Indonesia, there was an outbreak of tetanus in which 106 cases were confirmed. Half a year after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, a deadly cholera epidemic developed that has killed nearly 5,000 people so far – and the number continues to climb.

What role do environmental disasters play in the spread of disease?

Did You Know?
Natural disasters include earthquakes,volcanic eruptions, landslides, tsunamis, floods, and drought.

First, let’s examine how disease transmission works. There are several factors to consider: people who have a disease, other people who are susceptible to a disease and potential interactions with people and the environment that could lead to an infection. A natural disaster by itself does not directly change who has a disease. However, it does change the dynamic of disease-spreading interactions between people, and between people and their environment.

According to the World Health Organization, after natural disasters, risk factors for disease outbreaks are primarily associated with population displacement. Think about it — often homes and other important infrastructure, such as water sanitation facilities, are destroyed during a natural disaster. Homeless victims are packed together in refugee camps with little hygiene — no anti-bacterial soap, not enough fuel to boil water, and not enough toilets, so fecal matter and urine seep into the drinking water. For these reasons, refugee camps can act as incubators for disease.

Did You Know?
In the past 20 years, natural disasters have killed millions of people and have adversely affected the lives of at least 1 billion more people.

Other factors that affect disease transmission include the underlying health of the population, physical injuries, and limited access to healthy food, shelter and healthcare services during and after a natural disaster.

A natural disaster changes the disease-spreading interactions between people and their environment. Tetanus usually infects open wounds through spores found in soil and farm animals. In this way, physical injury does not only negatively affect physical health, but also increases the possibility of infectious interactions with the environment.Cholera also spreads via the environment through contaminated food and water.

Did You Know?
Without proper treatment, 50 per cent of people with severe cholera die. Appropriate and timely treatment can reduce this statistic to less than 1 per cent.

As you’re probably realizing by now,natural disasters lay the groundwork for the spread of disease.

Learn More!

Epidemics after natural disasters - Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

Natural Disaster & Infectious Disease - eHow Health


Article first published April 6, 2011.

Laurens Bakker

I'm an IT Advisor at a large consultancy firm. There, I help larger companies solve some of their hardest IT puzzles.

I got engaged with Let's Talk Science and CurioCity while I was a graduate student in the School of Computing Science at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. There I wrote my Master's Thesis on a social interactions among homeless in the East of the Vancouver Metropolitan area.

Most of my science background comes from my undergrad at Roosevelt Academy in The Netherlands, though. Roosevelt Academy is a small (600 students in total) Liberal Arts and Science University College that offers courses in fields as broad as from Quantum Physics to Performing Arts, and Macroeconomics to Medicine. I took advantage of this intensive but broad education by getting a B.Sc. with courses in Computing Science, Earth Science and Ecology, but also Spanish and Religious Studies.

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