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Rumors of dysentery, cholera are unfounded, health officials say

BILOXI, Miss.—In the first horrifying days after Hurricane Katrina, it was easy to believe reports that a Biloxi disaster-relief shelter had been hit by dysentery, a disease rarely seen outside underdeveloped countries.

Soon there were other presumed outbreaks, plus rumors of cholera, creating the false impression that Mississippi's Gulf Coast homeless were being warehoused in Dickensian squalor and disease.

There was no dysentery and no cholera, health officials say. Lab tests showed that the outbreak of diarrhea that raised fears of dysentery was caused by Norwalk virus. Norwalk, which sometimes hits travelers on ships, is also known as "the cruise ship virus."

While conditions were wretched at first, the American Red Cross, public health agencies—and the homeless themselves—have turned 15 sanctioned shelters in the six-county region of the Mississippi Gulf Coast into safe havens.

A survey of the shelters and hospitals by federal health officials found no unexpected illness this week, and "surprisingly few" cases of gastrointestinal disease, according to Mills McNeill, the chief epidemiologist for the Mississippi Department of Health, even though most shelters still lack running water and sewerage.

"What we have at this point is a good-news story regarding communicable disease," McNeill said. "Despite the fact that we're still early in the recovery, we have had nothing that we feel would overwhelm our health-care system."

Which is not to say that all is well. Makeshift refuges and campsites continue to pop up. Some chronically ill people have opted not to go to shelters for the medically needy, and many residents still can't get to shelters or refuse to go.

In the hard-hit Mississippi communities of Bay St. Louis and Waveland, where the Red Cross hasn't opened any shelters because of flooding concerns, more than 1,000 residents turned a high school into a shelter. It quickly became overcrowded and filthy, prompting the school superintendent to order an evacuation that was completed Wednesday.

"It was a hellhole," said Cordelia Hunnicuff, a Bay St. Louis resident. "The longer we stayed, the worse conditions got."

Sanitation and hygiene are crucial to health, but after Kristina struck, they were almost impossible to maintain. Bottled water, portable toilets and hand sanitizer—now ubiquitous throughout the region—were days away. Dangerous germs were easily spread through contaminated surfaces and water.

Dysentery can be life-threatening. The infection, caused by certain bacteria or by an amoeba, triggers stomach pains, bloody diarrhea, vomiting and fever.

The bacteria that cause cholera aren't usually found in the United States. The rare cases that occur usually can be traced to foreign exposure.

However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified a bacterium in the cholera family as the cause of six cases of infected wounds in the Biloxi area, three of them deadly. The bacteria are difficult to spread by contact, but they live in seawater, which was hard for people in the Gulf Coast to avoid 10 days ago.

No one knows whether serious illness will yet break out in Mississippi's shelters. But unlike in New Orleans, floodwaters have receded, so a big obstacle to recovery—and a big catalyst for disease—is gone.

Also, the shelter population has dropped by more than half in recent days as people have returned to what's left of their homes or found refuge elsewhere.

Jill Siegel, 39, a Red Cross volunteer who arrived last Friday to manage the shelter at Gulfport Elementary School, recalled the first days after Katrina: "It was unimaginable. When I walked in the front door, I started giving first aid, looking at wounds by flashlight. We had no electricity, no water, it was hot and we had almost no supplies."

When the 150 residents had to answer nature's call, they used the school's toilets, then hauled water from a nearby creek to flush them, a gambit that worked only because the sewer lines didn't back up.

Even so, Siegel said, the shelter has had only isolated cases of stomach illness, none involving diarrhea.

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(McCullough reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Krieger for the San Jose Mercury News.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-KATRINA-SHELTERS

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