Half the residents of New Orleans were suffering from poor mental and physical health more than a year after their homes and community were devastated by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, according to research published in the September issue of the UK-based Journal of Clinical Nursing.
Researchers from Point Loma Nazarene University, San Diego, California, spoke to 222 local residents 15 months after they survived one of the worst natural disasters to hit the USA.
They discovered that some health problems tripled in the post-Katrina period, compared to a survey of Louisiana residents carried out before the hurricane.
"Our results add to the growing body of evidence that disaster survivors continue to suffer from poor mental and physical health for prolonged periods of time after the initial impact" says lead researcher Professor Son Chae Kim.
"The health problem rates we recorded were considerably higher than those reported by Louisiana residents to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) in 2003. The BRFSS is the world's largest, on-going telephone health survey system and has been tracking health conditions and risk behaviors in the United States every year since 1984."
Key findings of the survey include:
"Some of the findings did surprise us" says Professor Kim. "Being unemployed and having missing family members were not correlated with poor mental health, but they did correlate with poor physical health.
"Also, difficult access to clean drinking water did not correlate with poor physical health, but it did correlate with poor mental health."
The aims of the study were to assess the medium-term post-Katrina mental and physical health of New Orleans residents and to determine the demographic, social and environmental factors that predict these problems.
The 222 residents were interviewed by University nursing students and faculty members, in partnership with the non-profit organisation Heart to Heart International. They were carried out during door-to-door visits and a community health fair in December 2006, 15 months after Katrina.
Just under two-thirds of the respondents (64 per cent) were aged between 35 and 64 years of age and 47 per cent had some college education. Sixty per cent were female, 77 per cent were black and 47 per cent were unemployed.
More than a quarter had no healthcare insurance, ate less than they should because of lack of money, lived below the poverty line and said their current house was unsafe due to major damage. Almost a quarter (23 per cent) felt unsafe from crime.
"Our findings indicate that the Katrina survivors are likely to suffer from persistent poor mental and physical health for the foreseeable future unless concerted interventions are put in place" says Professor Kim.
"The study suggests that post-Katrina efforts should focus on protecting the residents from crime, improving mental health services to those who are depressed and improving food supplies to the poor.
"We also hope that our findings will provide valuable guidance for healthcare professionals and policy makers involved in future disasters, by helping them to anticipate and deal with the mental and physical health problems that are left behind once the initial crisis has been dealt with."
Notes to editors
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