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Of flooding rains and health

The ripples keep spreading out. Who would have thought that a few drops of rain on a drought-wracked country would have so many ramifications?

07 Feb 2011

By AMA Vice President Dr Steve Hambleton

The ripples keep spreading out.

Who would have thought that a few drops of rain on a drought-wracked country would have so many ramifications?

A few drops of rain were followed by a few more drops of rain and then countless drops fell on Queensland, New South Wales, and later Victoria.

The Prime Minister has said that the floods may well be the most expensive natural disaster that Australia has ever seen.  She has announced a levy and program cuts to help pay for the Federal Government’s $5.6 billion flood recovery package.

Although they have not affected every State and Territory, the floods are truly a national disaster of the highest order.  If Mr Rudd were still Prime Minister he could be tempted to call it ‘the greatest moral challenge of our time’.

As quiet streams were turned into raging torrents that smashed all before them, reporters and commentators were using language such as ‘apocalypse’, ‘war zone’, ‘biblical proportions’, ‘one in 200 year flood’, ‘unprecedented’, and ‘never before seen’.

Many lives have been lost but a quick review of the footage of the floods confirms that we have been extremely lucky not to have lost more lives.

Despite our new dam holding more than six times water as Sydney Harbour, it was overwhelmed when, on just one day, more water than Sydney Harbour holds flowed directly into it.  The Brisbane River once again broke its banks.

Many General Practices were inundated.  GPs were finding that if their practices did not go down, then their houses or the houses of their staff did.  We were operating on a skeleton staff ourselves for several days, but many patients did not or could not come to us either.

Week two of the floods was punctuated by clean up issues.  Large numbers of people were presenting for treatment of cuts, abrasions and scratches sustained around filthy floodwaters or stinking mud.  Thankfully, our water supply was not compromised and truckload after truckload of rubbish was carted away, staving off the huge potential for more infectious disease.

We are still expecting mosquito-borne diseases to increase exponentially.  I recently saw my first case of Barmah Forrest Virus.  And the Fevers are still to come - Ross River, and perhaps Dengue and Murray Valley.

Encephalitis may even begin to show up.  Meliodosis from contaminated soil is a possibility, as well as many other diseases that may find their way great distances from their normal infection zones.

Mental wellness is the big sleeper - with hundred of thousands of people directly affected, and millions indirectly affected.  And we cannot forget our children who saw those distressing images on TV over and over and over again.

Getting normal health services up and running to meet demand is going to take time.

Queensland's largest hospital, the Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital, had to cancel all elective surgery and specialist outpatient appointments because of the floods crisis, and at last count had not restarted.

Elective surgery and specialist outpatients' appointments were also cancelled at Caboolture, Toowoomba, Ipswich, Oakey, and Nambour.

Cancellations will add to the already long waiting lists with ramifications that will be felt for months to come.  There simply is no spare capacity to catch up.  They will never catch up!

Just as we have seen the worst in our weather, we have seen the best come out in our community.

Volunteers coming out to provide a hard day’s work in difficult conditions to help perfect strangers. 

Individuals and businesses dug deep. The Premier’s Fund was originally targeting $15 million.  It has just surpassed $100 million.

All of us involved in the floods say ‘thank you’ to our fellow Australians.  Regardless of race, colour, or creed, we are all Australians and we are here to help each other.

The ripples from this flood will be felt for months, if not years, to come.

Published: 07 Feb 2011