Just*in Time: October 2017: Staying Healthy in a Natural Disaster

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Photo by Jessica Bolton

In public health we know that when a natural disaster occurs it affects people living with chronic illnesses. HIV/AIDS itself is a disaster and compounding it with natural disasters like hurricanes will only hurt attempts at prevention, treatment, and livelihood. People need advice in times like these and I personally have been through a natural disaster that has affected me. There are things that people must keep in mind when dealing with a natural disaster, like the recent Hurricane Harvey, especially if they are infected with a chronic illness.

Drink Only Potable Water
With almost every natural disaster water quality is directly affected. Water quality will decrease and may become unpotable (undrinkable). Consuming unpotable water will leave a person open to infections. If you are living with HIV, you may find yourself fighting off other infections. I suggest always keeping a supply of sealed water on hand. In my household, we stock gallons of water in case such an emergency occurs. We have been through storms where we must conserve water and those gallons of water truly did help.

Medication Crunch Time
During a natural disaster it is imperative that people with chronic illnesses have their medication available to them. There is a chance that a person will lose medications or even run out, which will impede a person’s treatment. There are ways that one may be able to work around this issue, such as contacting an organization that distributes unexpired medications. People who change medications may have some leftovers from their supply of unneeded medications and they may be able to donate the medication to persons affected by the natural disaster. I also suggest that you might want to keep a surplus of the medication you are on. I order a ninety-day supply of my HIV medication and order a new batch when I have only thirty days left of the medication. If you can afford it, I highly recommend this strategy.

Don’t Let Stigma Silence You
HIV stigma is still alive and well but to be treated and stay healthy you must be open and tell a healthcare provider about your condition if you have been moved to a new healthcare site. Tell them what medications you are on, when you last took your pills, and how many milligrams your medication is. You should have this all written down or documented somewhere in case you become separated from your medications.

Be Wary of Sepsis
With flood waters rising it is crucial that people living with a chronic illness do not wade in water. You do not want to be cut or otherwise injured by sharp objects hiding beneath the surface. Becoming injured while in water leaves a person open to sepsis, which is a when a toxin-bearing bacterium infects the bloodstream and travels throughout the body. The risk of sepsis is increased with the elderly, and others with weakened immune systems. Infections that can lead to sepsis are pneumonia, kidney and bloodstream, and/or stomach infections.

Medical Records
Sometimes natural disasters can be predicted but often they will take you by surprise—or at least the effects of the disaster will. Remember that you will need your medical records and cards so that you can be administered care if and when the time comes. Many people keep their medical cards in their wallets or purses. I suggest making a copy of them and all other records to be put into a small safe that is water- and fireproof. Electronic records are also now available via apps.

I know that many of you in Houston and neighboring cities are suffering. I can only hope and pray that you are getting or will get the care you need. I also pray that you and your families are safe. There are people who are missing, hurt, and killed. I’m asking not begging for all of you that are reading my column to reach out to those in the affected areas. By reaching out you never know how you can help. The smallest favor can be the biggest blessing. Shalom.


Justin B. Terry-Smith, MPH, has been fighting the good fight since 1999. He’s garnered recognition and awards for his work, but he’s more concerned about looking for new ways to transform society for the better than resting on his laurels. He started up in gay rights and HIV activism in 2005, published an HIV-themed children’s book, I Have A Secret (Creative House Press) in 2011, and created his own award-winning video blog called, “Justin’s HIV Journal”: justinshivjournal.blogspot.com. Presently, he is working toward his doctorate in public health. Visit his main Web site at www.justinbsmith.com. He welcomes your questions at [email protected].