Youngest hurricane victims facing chronic illness

Already displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, thousands of families in FEMA-subsidized temporary housing in Louisiana are facing a second crisis, according to a new study issued today by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and The Children’s Health Fund. The study found this displaced group is suffering from a host of serious medical and mental health problems, but receiving little or no treatment. An accompanying analysis has called for immediate action from Congress to respond to this looming health crisis.

The study found that children are suffering from high rates of chronic health conditions and poor access to care. Mental health was also identified as a significant issue for both parents and children, complicated by the fact that the displaced have lost stability, income, and security. And the safety nets designed to protect the welfare of children and families were found to have major gaps.

“On The Edge – The Louisiana Child & Family Health Study” was conducted by Operation Assist, a collaboration between Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and The Children’s Health Fund. David Abramson, PhD, MPH, associate research scientist at the Mailman School of Public Health, is the study’s principal investigator. It focused on displaced families in FEMA-subsidized housing in Louisiana who may be among the most needy.

Irwin Redlener, MD, director of the Mailman School’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness and president of the Children’s Health Fund said, “This crisis is an unprecedented threat to the well-being of children in the Gulf.” He continued, “We are just weeks away from the next hurricane season, with almost nothing done to ensure a safe future for families already deeply traumatized by the consequences of Katrina.” From February 11 through February 20, 2006, the survey team interviewed 665 randomly-selected households among the 12,000 households (representing more than 30,000 people) in FEMA-subsidized community housing in Louisiana. Among their key findings:

* More than one-third of children have at least one diagnosed chronic medical condition and are more likely to suffer from asthma, behavioral or conduct problems, developmental delay or physical impairment, and learning disabilities.

* Nearly half of the parents surveyed reported that at least one of their children had emotional or behavioral difficulties that the child didn’t have before the hurricane.

* More than half the women caregivers showed evidence of clinically-diagnosed psychiatric problems, such as depression or anxiety disorders.

* On average, households have moved 3.5 times since the hurricane, some as many as nine times, often across state lines.

* More than one-fifth of the school-age children who were displaced were either not in school, or had missed 10 or more days of school in the past month.

The study concluded that failing to provide stable health and mental health care will likely have long-term consequences. For example, a parent’s untreated depression increases the risk of mental health problems in their children, who in this case are already psychologically vulnerable. The analysis from Operation Assist has recommended a review of disaster preparedness planning for both mid-term and long-term recovery efforts to reconstitute medical care and mental health systems and providing for continuity of care. Additional planning should address the ability of schools to reach out and engage students and their families in emergency and transitional housing settings.

From Columbia University

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