10 Most Common Post-Disaster Diseases (& How to Avoid Them)

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The post-disaster world is inherently unsafe.

Survival isn’t always about just having the right gear; it’s about knowing what to do.

Whether we’re talking about a hurricane, a tsunami, or some form of civil strife, when large portions of the population are affected, epidemics will eventually begin to pop up all over the place.

After the acute stage of a disaster has passed — after the drownings, blunt force traumas, and crushing injuries take their toll, that is when infectious diseases swoop in.

While these are typically not significant issues within America, they still have the capability of popping up after a disaster, which means you should consider preventative measures.

Let’s take a look at the 10 major players here and what we can do to keep them at bay post-disaster.

10 Most Common Post-Diaster Diseases

I’m by no means a doctor, and this is not professional medical advice. Also, keep in mind the suggested tips to combat these diseases are preventative measures, and they should not be touted as a sure-fire way to avoid getting sick.

Everything listed below is a means to avoid the conditions that can lead to any of the following diseases. I’m no snake oil salesman, but if these items can act as a preventative measure, it’s helping us to do what we’re ultimately hoping for — not getting sick.

1. Cholera

Cholera is arguably the most well-studied and understood “disaster disease.” We’ve battled outbreaks of it forever, and it’s a direct result of the 1854 London outbreak that John Snow founded the field of epidemiology.

John Snow (Photo: Wikipedia)

People get cholera by getting fecal matter into their mouths — often by drinking sewage-tainted water. In a disaster situation, that’s much easier to do than it sounds.

The incubation period is a few hours to five days, and after that, the patient will experience a sudden onset of watery diarrhea, likely along with profuse vomiting. Rapid dehydration, circulatory collapse, and renal failure can result if you don’t find proper treatment quickly.

How to Avoid Cholera

Cholera Bacteria (Photo: Nisenet)

Drink clean water!

This is vital to post-disaster health. I personally like using a SteriPen for my water purification. It utilizes UV light to denature all viruses, bacteria, and other bad guys within your H2O — leaving you with a safe and clean source of rehydration.

2. Shigellosis

Shigellosis is another diarrheal disease that tends to be more sinister than cholera. Patients suffer from severe diarrhea, vomiting, cramps, fever, and even rectal spasms. It can even give you ulcers within your digestive tract which can rupture and cause bleeding.

Like Cholera, Shigella is transmitted by fecal matter contacting the mouth and has even been found to be transmitted after a fly lands on contaminated feces before landing on food.

Shigella Bacteria (Photo: CDC)

The incubation period is between 1-3 days, and it hits approximately 125 million people worldwide annually.

It can be deadly too. While it typically kills 14,000 people globally each year, it’s not uncommon for epidemics of such to see case-fatality rates of 20% even with hospitalization.

How to Avoid Shigellosis

Prep your water storage. A gallon of water per person per day is the typical recommendation, and two weeks’ worth is a great place to start. Rain barrels, Epic water filters, and bottled water will ensure an adequate water solution.

Diarrheal diseases are the primary infectious killers post-disaster. In some cases, they’ve accounted for 80% of the deaths amongst refugees. These types of diseases are often associated with a lack of soap, so make sure you have plenty of that available as well!

3. Typhus

Lice populations explode post-disaster. People may not have access to the laundry and bathroom facilities they are used to, and they end up becoming breeding grounds for lice as a result.

Louse Larva (Photo: Pixabay)

Asides from the fact that lice are gross — the real threat is typhus.

Within 1-2 weeks of being bit by an infected louse, headaches, chills, fever, general pain, coughing, quick breathing, and an overall feeling of sickness can occur. On days 5-6, a nasty rash starts on the upper trunk and then spreads throughout the rest of the body.

Macular Typhus Rash (Photo: OMICS)

Confusion, drowsiness, coma, seizures, and hearing loss can also happen. In the absence of treatment, up to 40% of patients may die.

How to Avoid Typhus

It may be wise to set aside a bottle of lice shampoo as a precaution. There are spray lice treatments for clothing that may also be worth looking into.

4. Malaria

While this isn’t really a problem in America anymore, if you’re overseas when disaster strikes, this is a threat you need to be educated on.

There are different types of malaria, but they generally have a 15-20% case-fatality rate once complications appear. If you leave falciparum malaria untreated long enough, there’s almost a 100% chance of your death.

Mosquito on skin
Everybody hates mosquitos, whether disaster strikes or not. (Photo: Mosquitonix)

This little protozoan parasite is transmitted by mosquitoes and has an incubation time between 9-14 days.

Once incubated, you’ll experience fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, weakness, cough, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.

In severe cases, impaired consciousness, convulsions, kidney failure, jaundice, and other deadly medical situations can develop.

Malaria Sporozoite (Photo: Genengnews)

How to Avoid Malaria

Mosquitoes are the enemy here, and keeping them at bay is a must. Bug spray is vital for this task, but it will only do so much. Make sure you have some form of mosquito netting as well in your kit.

I’m a fan of the ENO Guardian SL, having used it in the past without experiencing any problems. It’s pricy as far as mosquito netting goes, but it’s great if you’re camping in warmer weather.

5. Acute Respiratory Infections (ARIs)

This is an umbrella term for a wide range of little germs and bugs that can end up giving you a respiratory infection.

Usually, these wouldn’t be much of a threat with access to medicine, plenty of food, and adequate shelter; but none of that may be at hand post-disaster.

Refugee camps can be packed, as shown here in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. (Photo: Ammar Abd Rabbo)

Around 20-35% of all deaths in emergency settings can be attributed to ARIs. Lack of health services, overcrowding, inadequate shelter, poor nutrition, lack of blankets, and exposure to indoor cooking with open flames are all variables at play here.

How to Avoid ARIs

You can prevent ARIs with basic prepping. Malnutrition is a risk factor for just about every post-disaster disease, so ensure you have adequate food stores. Consider adding food-gathering tools like fish hooks and wire to your bug-out bag.

As far as shelter goes, I really like the Skorpion 2 tent. It’s a fantastic winter weather tent that will keep you out of the elements and warm. Combine that with a solid sleeping bag, and you’ve got a winning combination.

To avoid the smoke inhalation issue, I recommend checking out a rocket stove for your bug-out bag and a Kelly Kettle for your home base. Each creates minimal smoke, is designed to be used outside, is efficient, and is highly portable.

6. Measles

Despite sounding like an ancient problem, within post-disaster populations, measles can become a severe threat as it’s one of the easiest transmitted infectious diseases.

Illustration of Measles Bacteria. (Photo: BBC)

Within 14 days of exposure to airborne droplets, patients develop fever, red eye, inflammation inside their nose, cough, small spots inside the mouth, and a red blotchy rash on the face.

In malnourished kids, which are everywhere after a long-term disaster, it can lead to blindness, diarrhea, dehydration, oral sores, and severe skin infections.

Measles Rash (Photo: CDC)

How to Avoid Measles

Measles is associated with overcrowding. Where do refugees end up in overcrowded locations? Refugee camps.

Prepare by storing food, water, and medical supplies, and keep a fully stocked bug-out bag ready. Do that, and you’ll have done just about all you can to avoid such situations.

7. Hepatitis A and E

Hepatitis A Bacteria (Photo: CDC)

There are several types of hepatitis, but A and E are the most common within post-disaster communities. Both of them spread by getting fecal matter germs into your mouth, which, as previously mentioned, is easier to do when you’re living life like a refugee. 

One of the most common ways to do such is by drinking contaminated water — like drinking out of a pond others have used as a latrine.

Symptoms can include fever, low appetite, nausea, jaundice, abdominal discomfort, and general malaise.

Steri-pen and bottled water
Having fresh water and a way to purify other water is essential.

The incubation period varies, but hepatitis E can be a serious problem for those who are pregnant. Around 20% of pregnant women will be killed by hepatitis E if they can’t get access to proper treatment quickly enough.

While hepatitis is not as common as some other diseases on this list, it is something to be aware of.

How to Avoid Hepatitis A and E

Designated bathroom areas are a must — you cannot let people pop a squat wherever they want to. There needs to be one spot everybody uses with zero debate. The possibility people will die from not abiding by that is very real.

Digging some form of a latrine or pit for such purposes is widely considered a necessity.

I’m partial to Cold Steel’s entrenching tool for such, though there are plenty of other great options. Find something that will let you dig a hole efficiently, and then make sure everybody uses it.

8. Leptospirosis

Leptospirosis comes out when the floodwaters do and isn’t a lot of fun. It’s typically associated with rodent feces.

While ingesting it can cause leptospirosis, the primary way people get leptospirosis is from being in contact with it.

Leptospirosis in the Kidney. (Photo: Wikimedia)

About 5-14 days after exposure, patients end up with one of four (three of which are really bad) disease patterns. Case-fatality rates are between 5-15%, but if you end up with the pulmonary hemorrhage form, you have only got a 50-50 chance.

How to Avoid Leptospirosis

The best prevention here is to avoid the situation in the first place. If you can, evacuate before the flooding even hits. However, there are times when this won’t be an option.

Water Storage, Food, & Ammo
Water, food, and ammo are among the essentials needed for survival.

Stored food, water, and other supplies are critical. The longer you can operate independently, the less you’ll be tempted to wade out for supplies and help.

It may not be a bad idea to consider putting aside a few mouse traps and gloves to dispose of successful traps as well.

9. Tetanus

Post-disaster worlds are inherently dangerous and dirty. The risk of stepping on a rusty nail, cutting yourself on barbed wire, or some other injury increases dramatically. And it’s because of this that tetanus can be a threat in post-disaster populations.

Sharpen Knife Rust
Rust can be found almost anywhere, sometimes even on your own equipment.

It takes between 3-21 days to incubate, but after that, abdominal rigidity, painful hyperextension of the spine, and painful muscle contractions in the neck and jaw will start to take place. The longer one goes without treatment, the worse symptoms become, with death being a very real possibility.

How to Avoid Tetanus

Accidents happen regardless of how much one tries to prevent them, but that doesn’t mean things are hopeless. Quality gloves and boots can help you avoid some cuts and scrapes that would otherwise serve as points for infection.

This is also another great reason to stay out of flood water. You can’t see what’s under that dirty water. If you step on a pointed piece of metal, you’ll have done yourself no favors.

10. Meningitis

There are different types of meningitis, but they’re all transmitted by sneezes and coughs. As such, overcrowding can cause meningitis cases to skyrocket.

Illustration of Meningitis Bacteria (Photo: Wikimedia)

It takes 2-10 days for the buggies to settle into your system, but once they do, weakness, insomnia, neck pain, muscle spasms, and personality changes are common. Patients with it end up with inflammation of the brain and spinal cord.

If appropriate treatment is received, a patient can generally make a full recovery. Without treatment, the outlook is pretty grim.

How to Avoid Meningitis

Bug Out Bag
A well-stocked bug-out bag can keep you from needing to go near large crowds, effectively reducing your risk of exposure to disease.

I know I keep harping on this but try and avoid overcrowding situations.

Do what you can to avoid being attracted to refugee camps. Adequate food, water, medical supply stores, having a fully stocked bug-out bag, and evacuating before trouble begins are some of the best ways to do this.

Final Thoughts

While this is not a definitive list of what diseases pop up in the post-disaster world, these are some of the major ones.

Tent and bug out bag

Diarrhea, measles, ARIs, malaria, and malnutrition cause 60-95% of all refugee deaths. Thankfully, virtually all of them can be prevented by following a few simple practices.

Have you ever had experience with any of the above? If so, how did you handle it? Let us know in the comments below. For more on survival, check out our survival category with all the deets on staying alive!



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