Fiji faces disease outbreak risk following Cyclone Winston – Expert

A New Zealand medical expert says Fiji locals will need to prepare for potential post-disaster disease outbreaks including typhoid and dengue fever as the island nation enters a critical stage following the devastation left by cyclone Winston.

Dr Ian Griffiths, a former Red Cross doctor and medical director at GSK, says following such a disaster; sewage, water contamination and a shortage of food, shelter and medical supplies provide a breeding ground for a raft of diseases, along with psychological conditions such as post traumatic stress disorder.

He says there is a two to three week period following a disaster where the risk of exposure to potentially fatal diseases such as typhoid, dengue fever, and E.coli bacterial infections increases significantly.

Dr Griffiths made the comments as a relief effort from GSK will see more than $330,000 worth of antibiotics and antacids air freighted into Fiji.

“Anywhere you have pools of dirty or stagnant water you are going to see mosquitoes breeding and in Fiji they carry tropical illnesses. During the cyclone residents will have lost things like mosquito nets and basic shelter so they are essentially defenceless against these insects. Those most at risk or vulnerable to infection and disease are children under five,” he says.

One of the more concerning mosquito borne diseases is dengue fever, which has severe flu like symptoms and is an extremely uncomfortable illness, he says.

Dr Griffiths says if left untreated it can progress into the life threatening conditions dengue hemorrhagic fever or dengue shock syndrome.

“Dengue fever is also known as break-bone fever because it is so painful.

“It is too early to say if there is an increased risk of the Zika virus but the incidence and severity of all of these illnesses, including dengue fever, can escalate following a disaster such as this,” says Dr Griffiths.

He says unsanitised water can increase the risk of typhoid which has similar symptoms to malaria and can be fatal.

“Right now one of the priorities should be ensuring there is clean water, either by boiling or using chlorine tablets. In order to protect themselves from the spread of diseases locals will need to be cautious and ensure that any water they are using for washing crockery or utensils is sterilised.”

Along with physical illness there is a considerable risk of psychological conditions developing during this time with many likely to suffer from stress and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), says Dr Griffiths.

“PTSD is an anxiety syndrome when the body doesn’t realise that a crisis is over and it can last for years. Patients can have anxiety, increased levels of adrenalin, heart palpitations and be more likely to lash out or lose their temper,” he says.

In children PTSD can manifest in an inability to settle, anxiety or even playground fighting, he says.

Dr Griffiths says there could also be an increase in stress related conditions such as stomach ulcers.

GSK has dispatched supplies of antacids along with antibiotics to support recovery efforts.

“The antacids will help to reduce acid in the stomach and allow a developing ulcer to repair without acid eating into it or digging into the blood vessels.”

In addition to the donation of medicines, GSK's global health programmes team has provided $33,000 to Save the Children Australia who are leading the organisation's response to this crisis.

Save the Children Australia sent a team of six specialist staff in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone to support nutrition, logistics, education and communications.

While assisting in the repair of key services, Save the Children will be focusing on meeting the needs of children who are particularly traumatised by the experience.

Funding provided by GSK will support the costs associated with running Child Friendly space for 4 – 6 weeks, in addition to paying to rebuild vital water, sanitation and hygiene facilities at schools.

Fiji faces disease outbreak risk
PIC: Mary with her grandchildren Mary, Vita and Samu. The family has been taking shelter at the AKP Primary School, Ba, Viti Levu, Fiji. The school has become a home for around 20 families whose homes have been affected by Cyclone Winston. (Credit: Robert McKechnie/ Save the Children)

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