Dr Anita, GPpartners
Now that the floodwaters in Queensland are receding, a major concern for those living in affected areas and workers who may have been helping with the cleanup has been the increased risk of disease and infection.
Queensland Health and the Australian Medical Association have been proactive in ensuring that accurate and relevant health information has been publicly available throughout the crisis, while GPs have been receiving official health alerts to keep them up-to-date on the evolving situation.
One of the high profile concerns, particularly in the media, has been the threat of tetanus infection. Tetanus is caused by the bacterium Clostridium tetani, which can spread from the environment to open wounds and then enter the blood stream, where toxins produced by the bacteria affect the nervous system.
Symptoms of tetanus infection usually take between one to 21 days before they begin to show and can include muscle spasms, lockjaw, difficulty talking and breathing, and stiffness and/or pain in the shoulders, back and neck. However, high vaccination rates and good wound management have meant that tetanus is now rare in Australia.
In fact historically in Australia, tetanus has not been a problem after floods or other natural disasters. Despite this, around 6000 people had been given a booster vaccination within a week of the Brisbane cleanup starting.
The shots probably helped to alleviate the fears of flood workers and volunteers, although most Australians would be already immune. This is because the tetanus vaccine has been given as part of childhood immunisation programs since the early 1950s and most adults would already have received boosters during their lifetime.
Boosters used to be given every 10 years, but now all that are routinely necessary are three doses of vaccine (given at two, four and six months of age) and boosters at four years, 15 years and 50 years of age. It is important to remember that a single dose of tetanus vaccine cannot make someone immune if they have not already completed a three dose primary course of tetanus vaccination.
Where people sustain injuries from the cleanup effort that could be contaminated with floodwater or mud, they should apply first aid and then seek medical advice. They may be given antibiotics to prevent infection and will be assessed on their need to receive a tetanus booster.
For more information about staying safe during the cleanup, visit the Queensland Health website: http://www.health.qld.gov.au/