Sunday, August 19, 2018

Kerala battles its worst floods in 100 years: Acute health effects of floods

Floods waters not only take a toll of human life, they also leave an aftermath of illnesses. The health effects of floods can be immediate as well as long-term.  Today we discuss the immediate or acute health effects of flood.


Floods create an immediate risk of drowning for everyone. It has been postulated that two thirds of flood-related deaths worldwide are from drowning and one third from physical trauma, heart attacks, electrocution, CO poisoning or fire.

Drowning may occur by falling into fast-flowing water, at times of unknown depth, including open manholes, crossing flooded rivers or streams, standing on bridges that might be washed away or driving through flood-water. Driving through floodwater is risky. Vehicles do not provide adequate protection from flood waters. They can be swept away or may stall in moving water. As per the CDC, people in vehicles are at greatest risk for drowning, while according to the UK health protection agency, 6 inches of fast-flowing water can knock over an adult, and 2 feet of standing water will float a car.


Walking through floodwater is dangerous. Sharp objects submerged in the water can cause injury. Standing waters can hide open manholes and drains, or holes in the roads or other trip/fall hazards. Flood waters can displace vehicles, trees and other material, which can cause injury. Building collapse or damage may also cause injury. Chances of injuries are more when people are trying to evacuate and move away from the fast approaching water. Types of injuries include wounds caused by sharp objects and fractures.


There is a risk of electrocution if water is present anywhere near electrical circuits and electrical appliances. Submerged fallen power lines or live wires can electrically charge the standing water.

Communicable diseases

Although in the short term, there is limited risk of transmission of communicable diseases, floods can potentially increase the transmission of:

  • Water-borne diseases, such as typhoid fever, cholera, leptospirosis and hepatitis A
  • Vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, dengue, yellow fever, Zika

The major risk factor for water-borne diseases is drinking from potentially contaminated water sources. Leptospirosis, a zoonotic bacterial disease can also be transmitted directly from contaminated water and may cause epidemic. Infection may be acquired by wading in floodwater or contaminated fresh water, especially if there is open wound or scratch.

Direct contact with polluted waters can cause wound infections, dermatitis, conjunctivitis and ear, nose and throat infections.

Hypothermia may occur, particularly in children, if trapped in floodwaters for long periods of time.

Chemical contamination

Industrial chemical leaks, gasoline and diesel spills from vehicles, fuel supplies, pesticides, including household items can contaminate flood water. Carbon monoxide poisoning may occur due to the use of portable generators or pumps to remove collected water.


Psychological stress manifesting as tearfulness, numbness, tearfulness, numbness, lethargy, low mood is common.

Other health effects

  • Trench foot, also known as immersion foot, caused by prolonged exposure of the feet to wet, unsanitary, and cold conditions.
  • Animal and insect bites may occur as flood waters can displace animals, insects, and reptiles from their home.

In addition, health risks are also associated with the evacuation of patients to safer grounds, loss of health workers and/or health infrastructure including essential drugs and supplies and damage to equipments.

Dr KK Aggarwal
Padma Shri Awardee
Vice President CMAAO
Group Editor-in-Chief IJCP Publications
President Heart Care Foundation of India
Immediate Past National President IMA

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