Preppers spend a lot of time preparing for the immediate effects of a disaster and making sure they have the supplies to get them through the aftermath. However, one of the things that commonly gets overlooked is the risk of disease.
More specifically, waterborne diseases present a huge threat.
*If you don't feel like reading all of this super-important information about waterborne disease, just scroll to the end. There is a graphic which shows you how to treat water!
Why Worry about Waterborne Disease?
Depending on the type of pathogen in the water, the symptoms can range from hallucinations to extreme fatigue.
But one symptom is consistent with pretty much all waterborne diseases: diarrhea and vomiting
Diarrhea and vomiting = dehydration
Dehydration = death
I don't know about you, but I don't want to die because of diarrhea!
As ridiculous as it probably sounds to those of us living in developed countries, diarrhea actually kills over 1.25 million people each year and WHO reports that is the second leading cause of death in children under 5 years old.
Even Minor Disasters Bring On Waterborne Diseases
Of course, it isn’t just waterborne diseases which preppers should be worried about. We could also face a pandemic of disease spread through the air, or vector-borne diseases coming from insects like mosquitoes.
Yet, when we look at past disasters – even minor ones – it becomes clear how much of a risk waterborne disease presents.
Take, for example, what happened in 1993 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin when heavy rains caused flooding that led to an outbreak of the parasite Cryptosporidium parvum. Over 400,000 people were infected – or approximately 25% of the city’s population!
The city was able to set up a hotline and provide medical support to the infected patients. But what if the outbreak had occurred alongside another disaster that shut down infrastructure? We would have seen a lot more than the 69 deaths which occurred.
Hurricane Katrina is another example of how waterborne disease can wreak havoc in the aftermath of a disaster. Huge numbers of victims got gastrointestinal illnesses from waterborne pathogens like Vibrio. The same happened during Hurricanes Sandy and Irene.
As microbial risk expert Joan Rose of University of Michigan says, we almost always see an increase in illness following flooding, though it isn’t always well documented.
It seems we as a nation still haven’t learned our lesson to take precautions against disease in the aftermath of disaster!
Bear in mind that the USA is a developed country. When natural disasters occur in underdeveloped countries where infrastructure is poor, the outbreaks are even worse.
What Happens When Waterborne Disease Hits Undeveloped Countries?
In Haiti, cholera outbreaks killed over 9,000 and affected hundreds of thousands. The really scary thing is that the outbreak still isn’t over!
Six years after the hurricane which triggered the outbreak, cholera is still killing about 37 people per month.
Don’t think that terrible disease outbreaks won’t happen just because you live in a developed country. It wouldn’t take much to reduce a country like the United States to the likes of a third-world country. An EMP attack, solar flare, and mega earthquake are just some disasters that could do it.
I’m not trying to fear monger. I just want to point out that NO ONE IS IMMUNE, regardless of where they live!
The Greatest Waterborne Disease Risks
If you live in a rural area, you are lucky to be away from the crowded conditions which contribute to the spread of disease. However, people in rural areas are still at risk of disease from flooding. Animal waste, fertilizers, and pesticides often contaminate waters and can lead to disease.
People living in urban areas have it particularly tough. Sewage is one of the immediate risks. Flooding overwhelms the infrastructure and untreated sewage backs up into homes and the streets. The stagnant water quickly starts to grow mold (which can then lead to an airborne disease risk!).
City dwellers also have to worry about diseases coming from floating corpses, trash, gasoline, detergents, and other runoff.
According to the CDC, these are the top disease-causing agents that put health at risk after disasters.
Top Disease-Causing Agents Affecting Public Water Sources:
- Excessive fluoride
Top Disease-Causing Agents Affecting Private Well Water:
In underdeveloped countries, it is common for outbreaks of “scarier” diseases like cholera, Hepatitis A, Leptospirosis, Polio, typhoid, and tularemia to occur.
Again, Western countries aren’t immune. The fact that there was an outbreak of Leptospirosis in dogs in Fresno, California shows that humans could be at risk too during a disaster.
If you get infected by one of these waterborne pathogens, you can count on symptoms like diarrhea, bloody stools, abdominal cramping, vomiting, dizziness, headache, and fever.
I know that these symptoms might seem more like a nuisance than a problem, but they can be deadly!
Consider that the World Health Organization estimates that nearly 2 million children die each year from diarrheal disease and you start to realize how dangerous these waterborne diseases can be.
How to Keep Yourself Safe from Waterborne Disease
As with everything related to disasters, the best way to keep yourself safe is through EDUCATION and PREPARATION.
1. Know When Water Might Pose a Risk
- Water during Power Outages: As the CDC warns, water treatment plants may stop working during a power outage. Turn on your emergency radio to see if a “Boil Alert” is in place.
- Water from Natural Sources: As any backcountry hiker will warn you, even water which appears clean can contain pathogens. Never drink water from sources like lakes, streams, or rivers. Rainwater is generally safer but even this can contain dangerous chemicals and should be treated.
- Flood Water: Avoid coming into contact with flood water! You can become ill simply by walking through flood water as pathogens can enter through open cuts. Be sure not to touch your mouth or eyes after touching contaminated water.
- Foods Which Have Come In Contact with Contaminated Water: People who have traveled to developing countries know about this one! Simply eating foods like produce which has been in contact with dirty water can lead to illness. No amount of washing will ensure pathogens are off the food, so just don’t eat it. Keep a supply of packaged emergency food stored instead.
2. Stockpile Clean Water
Luckily, most disasters don’t last for more than a few days or weeks (in developed countries, at least).
For these situations, you can rely on a stockpile of clean drinking water. FEMA recommends stockpiling enough water to last two weeks.
I say that you should play it even safer and stockpile enough water to last you at least a month.
3. Know How to Treat Contaminated Water
There are numerous ways that you can treat contaminated water to make it safe for consumption and other uses (such as hygiene).
These include filtering, boiling, chemical treatments, UV treatments, distillation, and osmosis. Read about the 9 methods of treating water here.
What is important to note is that you should have multiple methods of treating water. Each method has its pros/coons, so you might need to combine methods or have a backup method in certain situations.
4. Be Prepared to Treat Waterborne Disease
Every individual and family should have a first aid kit with disaster supplies. As for treating waterborne diseases, you’ll want to make sure you have:
- Antidiarrheal and anti-vomiting medicines*
- Analgesics for reducing fever
- Oral rehydration salts for treating dehydration
*Don’t immediately grab those antidiarrheal and anti-vomiting medications! In some situations, taking antidiarrheal medications can actually make the disease worse. Since antidiarrheal medicines work by slowing down diarrhea, it can keep the pathogen in your body longer (remember, diarrhea is your body’s natural way of getting a pathogen out of your body!).
If you have bloody or dark stools, never take antidiarrheal or anti-vomiting medicines!
5. An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Cure
Knowing how to properly treat contaminated water is a good start, but this isn’t necessarily enough to prevent waterborne disease.
Be prepared with a stockpile of disinfectants so you can thoroughly clean anything which has come in contact with dirty water. Porous items such as pillows and mattresses will likely have to be thrown away as they can’t be safely decontaminated.
If you haven’t already done so, now is the time to make sure your vaccinations are all up-to-date, specifically ensure that you are vaccinated against Hepatitis A.
Choosing a Water Treatment Method
By knowing what waterborne threats may be present, you can choose the right water treatment method. You'll realize by looking at this that you will probably need MULTIPLE methods of treating water in emergencies. It pays to be prepared!
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