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Bacteria stew threat to jazz city

Washington, Sept. 8 (Reuters): Three people have died from bacterial infections in Gulf states after Hurricane Katrina, and tests confirm that the water flooding New Orleans is a stew of sewage-borne bacteria, federal officials said yesterday.

A fourth person in the Gulf region is suspected to be infected with Vibrio vulnificus, a common marine bacteria, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr Julie Gerberding said, citing reports from state health officials in Mississippi and Texas.

“This does not represent an outbreak,” Gerberding said. “It does not spread from person to person.”

“People who are compromised in immunity can sometimes develop very severe infections from these bacteria. We see cases of this from time to time along the coast,” she added.

Two of those who died were in Mississippi and one was an evacuee to Texas from Louisiana, health officials said. And tests of the waters flooding New Orleans show it is, as expected, loaded with raw sewage.

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Stephen Johnson said all the tests of waters in flooded residential areas of New Orleans exceeded by at least 10 times the safe levels of E. coli and other so-called coliform bacteria, found in the human gut and used as an indicator of sewage contamination. They also have high levels of lead.

“Human contact with the floodwaters should be avoided as much as possible,” Johnson said. “This may seem obvious ... but no one should drink the floodwaters, especially children.” Gerberding said the message was clear. “For evacuees who haven’t left the city yet, you must do so,” he said.

Rescuers are scrubbing down evacuees with soap and water at the first possible opportunity, and Gerberding said anyone who comes into contact with the water should also wash.

But the danger of infection also continues in the crowded shelters where many evacuees are staying for the foreseeable future.

“Right now in the shelters where most of the people are located we have seen sporadic reports of gastrointestinal illness,” Gerberding said. The conditions are specially ripe, she said, for norovirus, a type of virus that includes the Norwalk virus that occasionally causes outbreaks on cruise ships. “Norovirus is not generally life-threatening,” said Gerberding.

In Houston, David Persse, who oversees medical issues for Houston, said the city that has accommodated more displaced people than any other has not seen any evidence of disease from infected flood waters.

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