For six years, we’ve discussed off and on how income inequality hurt the health of citizens, even in the top income strata. The US now ranks 27th in life expectancy among 34 advanced economies, down from 20 in 1990.
But in addition to the considerable health dangers of stress and weak social bonds, more obvious public health risks may be coming to the fore. Strained municipal budgets means reduced public services, and they can have direct health impact, such as frequency of garbage pickup, the level of staffing of emergency services, the number of hospital beds per capita (consider what happens if you have a natural disaster or disease outbreak and the number of sick and injured exceed the capacity of local facilities).
The public water supply in a New Orleans parish is now a health hazard. From NBC:
A deadly brain amoeba that’s killed two boys this year has been found in a U.S. drinking water supply system for the first time, officials said Monday — in a New Orleans-area system..
“We have never seen Naegleria colonizing a treated water supply before,” said Dr. Michael Beach, head of water safety for the CDC. “From a U.S. perspective this is a unique situation.”
N. fowleri is a heat-loving amoeba that’s usually harmless, unless it gets up someone’s nose…. There, the amoeba reproduces and the brain swelling and infection that follows is almost always deadly.
It killed a Miami-area boy last month — 12-year-old Zachary Reyna — and a 12-year-old Arkansas girl, Kali Hardig, is recovering slowly after an unusual experimental treatment.
N. fowleri is usually found in warm, fresh waters all over the world. It’s been seen in hot springs and swimming holes, freshwater lakes and even in neti pots used to clean out sinuses. Incomplete disinfection probably allowed it to thrive in St. Bernard, which has its own independent water system, Beach says…
N. fowleri has only been reported in about 130 people in the U.S. since 1962, making it extremely rare. Kali Hardig is only the third person known to have survived infection…
Lousiana health department spokesman Ken Pastorick says officials are flushing out and decontaminating the St. Bernard Parish system, a process that may take several weeks.
“They have shocked the water, so to speak,” Pastorick said. “What has caused the problem here is low chlorination.” Pastorick says other Louisiana water systems are safe.
Beach says it’s not necessary to test water systems for the amoeba. Proper chlorination should always take care of it, he says.
And he stresses that water is safe to drink and bathe in even if it’s contaminated. Stomach acid appears to kill the amoeba, and people can protect themselves by not snorting water up their noses, or not allowing it to be forced up the nose.
St. Bernard water customers are being cautioned not to fill kiddie pools with tap water, or to use other water toys such as the sliding game that the 4-year-old boy who died was playing on. Topping up swimming pools with hoses is a bad, idea, too, unless the water first goes through the disinfection system.
“The critical piece is kids in the water,” Pastorick says.
Now on the surface, this may not sound like a big deal. Poor New Orleans parish screws up, putting kids at risk, but it can fix the problem cheaply and quickly. But the problem is the pathogen should never have been in the water in the first place. Chlorine is inexpensive, so that suggests the contamination resulted from human failings. One has to wonder if those are budget related, due to reduced staffing or changes in supervision procedures.
Readers might cynically go further and argue that we may well see a lot of this sort of localized, poor area health problems, since the rich are insulated by physical separation. But that only goes so far. As lower income people become less healthy relative to wealthier individuals and are also put more at risk due to deteriorating public services, it is only a matter of time before a contagion spreads through a crowded, low income area (mind you, it might not have started there, but a cluster of susceptible people could be an accelerant). Dream if the wealthy can protect themselves all that well. Many “world cities” have high populations densities. Hospitals are disease vectors even under normal circumstances. And public health officials are monitoring worrisome pathogens like bird flus and drug-resistant tuberculosis.
The problem, of course, is that it will likely take some sort of calamity for the rich to realize that they can’t fully insulate themselves from the rest of society. And the sort of incident that will wake them up to that risk will almost certainly exact a bigger toll on everyone else, unless it’s of the guillotine and pitchforks variety.