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Rumors may be worst contagion

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NEW ORLEANS -- Most people here have been without television news or access to newspapers since Hurricane Katrina struck. Cellphone service is spotty, and land lines are down. What has replaced the news is the rumor mill.

Ali Khan, who is directing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's disaster response from a center hurriedly set up at Kindred Hospital, says there have been so many wild rumors that he has named infectious-diseases expert Tom Clark as the agency's official myth buster.

Rumors can cause serious problems, Khan says. "Bad information has the ability to hamper effective response," he says, because it can cause rescuers to hold back out of fear for their own safety.

"We've had rumors of anthrax, monkeypox, (National) Guard units with various rashes," he says.

One story was that people who had come into contact with floodwaters were developing serious rashes. "We looked at that and found a couple of people with contact dermatitis (an allergic skin reaction), but nothing horrible, with skin flaking off," Khan says. "This is why surveillance is so important, to truly understand what's going on in a community."

Clark says, "The general anxiety among people is really surprising, even the people with medical training." He says people have heard that the floodwaters are toxic, and they're worried about breathing in the dust and dirt in areas where flooding has receded. They're also worried about mold.

"There's not much infectious disease risk from dust or mold, or even floodwaters if you take proper precautions," Clark says.

Among the rumored ailments that Clark calls unfounded: a contagious rash caused by an unidentified type of bug that bit soldiers in the city's Audubon Park.

There is no sign of cholera, Clark says. About two dozen cases of infection with vibrio vulnificus, a bacterium in the cholera family, did occur, he says, which is more than the usual five to 10 cases reported in the area each year. Vibrio lives in brackish water and can cause food poisoning if people eat contaminated shellfish, such as raw oysters. It also causes skin infections and can be deadly in people who have compromised immune systems or liver disease, Clark says. But vibrio is a different bug from the bacterium that causes cholera epidemics.

The CDC last week detected another related bacterium, a strain of vibrio cholerae, in a person in a Tennessee shelter who had been evacuated from New Orleans. That strain can cause mild diarrhea but not cholera, the CDC says.

There has been only one dog bite, no hepatitis A outbreaks and no evidence that two search-and-rescue dogs dropped dead after being in the floodwaters, a rumor so persistent that some rescuers were afraid to let their dogs in the water.

Tests of air quality have found no serious problems, and samples of the floodwaters found mainly lead contamination and sewage, Clark says.

"There just isn't this wholesale toxic environment that people shouldn't go into," Clark says.

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