“We can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone.” Ronald Reagan had the right idea. Many fail to realize that the dangers and health related issues don’t end after a storm passes; there are more challenges yet to come which require more aid and resources. Lend a helping hand. Go beyond food and water and donate First Aid supplies, bug spray; Volunteer locally to help collect, organize and package these valuables. Every little bit counts!

Devastation, destruction, hunger and desperation are some of the words used to describe the aftermath of natural disasters like the most recent hurricanes, Harvey, Irma and Maria. The immediate health problems that follow monstrous cyclones like these include physical injuries, exposure to toxins and drowning from floodwaters. The long-term problems involve death from untreated injuries, pre-existing medical condition emergencies, stress-related problems like shock and depression, infectious diseases, hunger and dehydration. The dismantling of the public health infrastructure, limited or no access to medical attention, shortage of basic resources and a less than prompt relief response compounds these problems and escalates the devastation. But you can help!

Floods and standing water also intensify some of these problems. If heavily contaminated, they can spread gastrointestinal and wound related infections and even e-coli; chemical hazards surge and people are exposed to environmental microorganisms like mold, a potentially deadly fungus that can cause health problems including rashes, sinus infections, asthma and serious lung damage. The best donation you can make to lessen these risks are sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, antibiotics, ointments, asthma medicine, bandages and other wound care products; plastic gloves, and Lysol or Clorox disinfecting sprays and wipes will make a big difference.

As debris collects pools of stagnant water and many are left without roofs, windows and screens to keep the mosquitos away, they are exposed to insect bites and a variety of viruses like Zika, Dengue and Chikungunya—an immense epidemic risk. Injuries as little as a mosquito bite, if exposed to contaminated floodwater can become life threatening due to septic shock, hospitalization and even surgery. A more severe viral outbreak like Cholera, due to inaccessible resources needed to properly dispose of the dead, is also a scary possibility. Bug repellent, anti-itch cream, waterproof tarps and construction materials will help the storm victims protect themselves until the assigned relief agency arrive and control the threat.

Water is scarce—dehydration, abundant. The rivers may be contaminated and with no electricity or supplies available to treat the water, it is unsafe to drink. Proper food safety practices are gravely affected by the loss of power. The saying goes, “When in doubt, throw it out,” but when experiencing hunger, it’s easier said than done. Perishables, including meats and dairy, must be discarded to avoid food-borne illnesses, so it important to follow this saying. With so many edibles spoiled, every grain of rice and every drop of water you donate will save a life!

It is said that the best comes out when faced with adversity. But as communities come together to clean debris and work to restore their neighborhoods, Tetanus, a deadly infection, can easily occur if they cut themselves with sharp objects hidden by the muddy water. Electrocutions and burns are also common as people try to restore power and use wood and gas to cook meals and light their homes up at night. Power outages increase the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning because alternate sources like back-up generators, wood, coal, propane and charcoal can all produce this poisonous gas and emit it into the air inside and/or dangerously near homes. Solar powered items including lanterns, rechargeable battery packs and even generators completely eliminate the CO2 and the lighting complications.

Traumatic events of this magnitude often cause feelings of hopelessness, anxiety and frustration increasing rates of depression and post-traumatic stress (PTSD). After being displaced by a hurricane, mental stress can affect people’s character and behavior increasing aggressive, criminal and suicidal events. This is where fun gifts like card games, books and puzzles, help distract the mind; whistles help communities left in darkness signal each other for help if looters come and glow sticks make children easy to spot and less afraid at night.

There are some things that only time devoted by skilled professionals can remedy. People suffering from chronic diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, and heart conditions are at higher death risks as crucial medicines and care start to be more difficult to find. Heart attacks also rise by 35% in the weeks following most natural disasters. As a result, these patients and those with more critical conditions like sepsis and multi-organ failure or require oxygen and dialysis will most likely die if not given the proper care. Victims that are affected by these alarming statistics would have a higher rate of survival if doctors, nurses, engineers, electricians, and construction and landscaping workers volunteer to aid with medical facility operations, blocked roads, and broken bridges and restore medical and food supply chains.

We are the only ones that can make a difference and save a life—And so we should!

By Dr. Iris I. Mercado, EdD, CDN & Bianca Sanchez