The devastating floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey will damage many human habitats, but after the flood recedes, the waterlogged city may become a more welcoming habitat for mosquitoes. And that means that residents already made vulnerable by the hurricane might also eventually be at increased risk for mosquito-borne diseases like West Nile virus and Zika.
West Nile virus has been endemic in Texas since 2002. In 2016, the state had 370 cases; so far in 2017, there have been 36 confirmed cases. Harris County, where Houston is located, has seen cases of West Nile in humans this year, and detected the virus in local mosquitoes.
Texas has also had 22 Zika cases in 2017, although local transmission has only been detected in Brownsville, a city on the Gulf Coast close to the Mexican border.
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The risk of infectious-disease outbreaks shortly after natural disasters is not as high as one might think, according to an overview published by researchers from the World Health Organization in Emerging Infectious Diseases. “Deaths associated with natural disasters, particularly rapid-onset disasters, are overwhelmingly due to blunt trauma, crush-related injuries, or drowning,” the article reads. “Deaths from communicable diseases after natural disasters are less common.” The greatest disease risk, according to these authors, comes from population displacement. If people are crowded in shelters with insufficient sanitation, that could create the conditions for disease to spread.
If people are crowded in shelters with insufficient sanitation, that could create the conditions for disease to spread.
With mosquito-borne illnesses specifically, it appears that there may be a delayed effect. In the short term, after a hurricane, there should actually be a lower risk of contracting these viruses, because the water likely washed away the existing breeding sites.
“But then over time, as the floodwaters recede, you’re left with pockets of water which are good for breeding both Culex mosquitoes and Aedes mosquitoes,” says Peter Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. Culex mosquitoes carry West Nile, as well as St. Louis encephalitis and Japanese encephalitis. Aedes aegypti are the primary carriers for Zika, as well as dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever.
This is what happened after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. There was no increase in West Nile disease or St. Louis encephalitis in Louisiana or Mississippi that year. Researchers suspected this was because not only did flooding and winds destroy mosquitoes’ habitats, but evacuees ended up in areas less affected by those diseases.