By Joshua Cohen
On September 1st, Hurricane Dorian made landfall in the Bahamas as the strongest Category 5 storm ever to hit the archipelago, with sustained winds of 185 mph and 220 mph wind gusts.
In the Bahamas, the death toll from Dorian stands at 20. The number of fatalities is expected to climb in the coming days.
Especially hard hit were the islands of Grand Bahama (population approximately 52,000) and Great Abaco (population approximately 17,000).
In the aftermath of Dorian the short-term objectives include search and rescue operations and getting emergency supplies to those in need. United Nations officials estimate that over 60,000 people on the two most affected islands have an immediate need for food and access to clean water.
It is also essential that hospitals are able to return to normal operations as quickly as possible. The hurricane has devastated infrastructure, including healthcare facilities, across the Abaco and Grand Bahama islands.The main hospital on Grand Bahama is reportedly unusable. A smaller private hospital on Grand Bahama has remained open and usable during and after the hurricane. However, road access to the facility has been hampered by very high water levels. Also, the hospital on Great Abaco has an acute need for medical supplies and clean water.
Hospitals in the capital Nassau are operating normally. However, getting critically ill patients from badly impacted locales to New Providence island where Nassau is located is extraordinarily difficult, because the country’s second largest airport at Freeport on the Grand Bahama island has been severely damaged.
And, in the mid to longer term, the Bahamas could face a number of potential public health crises. Specifically, in the hurricane’s wake it will be important for health authorities to be vigilant regarding communicable diseases that can thrive in places with inadequate water treatment and poor sanitation resulting from the storm.
For example, until now there has been a low risk in the Bahamas for hepatitis A, cholera, and dysentery. But, this could change as a result of the storm, owing to a lack of clean water and the absence of basic sanitation in certain locales. Also, there is an ongoing risk of Dengue fever in the Bahamas – the country has dealt with recent outbreaks of the disease – and that risk may be elevated as a consequence of the hurricane. Dengue fever is transmitted by mosquitoes. There is a tremendous amount of standing water in parts of the Bahamas, and this is the breeding ground for mosquitoes.
The Bahamas are better equipped than a number of other Caribbean nations to address these public health challenges. Nevertheless, substantial resources will be needed to rebuild healthcare facility infrastructure and ensure proper vigilance for public health threats.