Despite reporting five deaths from a bacteria-caused illness, public health officials said Tuesday they are more concerned about the possibility of toxic chemicals in the water covering New Orleans than they are about a cholera outbreak.
Dr. Julie Gerberding, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that more than a week after Hurricane Katrina hit the region health officials still don't know if the water contains toxic chemicals.
"We don't know if chemical and petroleum industries in the region have survived," she said during a conference call that included Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt and Surgeon General Richard Carmona. "We have a comprehensive environmental health team there. We're just putting together a picture now."
Gerberding downplayed the risk of cholera, saying it has not been found in the region for years, and is not likely to emerge now as a threat, CNN reports.
Instead, public health officials are preparing for possible outbreaks of infectious disease. They are focusing on E. coli and other diseases that can cause diarrhea, including Norwalk viruses, which have caused outbreaks on cruise ships.
Floodwater in New Orleans is contaminated with E. coli bacteria, a mayor's office employee who declined to be identified told CNN. Drinking E. coli-contaminated water can lead to serious illness and death.
Laboratory tests of water samples in New Orleans found it loaded with fecal material.
The CDC said that five people who survived Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans died after becoming infected with Vibrio vulnificus, caused by a form of the bacteria that also causes cholera. One of the deaths occurred in Texas; the other four were in Mississippi, CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said.
"These were all either elderly or had chronic, underlying health conditions," people considered most at risk for suffering complications from such infections, he said.
The bacteria are in the same family as the bacteria that cause cholera, and the victims apparently became infected through open cuts on their skin.
Officials said they are taking steps to limit the outbreak of disease in the crowded shelters, whose residents could prove susceptible.
Authorities also are watching for respiratory illnesses, such as the common cold, influenza and tuberculosis.