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Health Risks For The Elderly And Sick In A Natural Disaster

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HURRICANE IRENE MEDICAL RESPONSE
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For many up and down the East Coast who braced for Hurricane Irene this past weekend, the experience was a serious wake-up call for how prepared we are (or aren't) for a natural disaster. Flashlights flew off shelves, bread disappeared from the supermarket, bottled water became a scarce resource and batteries were nowhere to be found.

But for the elderly and chronically ill, the realities of widespread damage, hospital evacuations, pharmacy closures and power outages took on a whole new meaning.

During Hurricane Irene, in New York City alone about 7,000 sick and elderly patients in hospitals and nursing homes were transported to a safer location to ride out the storm -- the move was followed by an unprecedented evacuation for all of the area's residents, as well. And while the densely populated city received the brunt of the media coverage, it was hardly the only area to evacuate patients -- one Maryland hospital evacuated and closed, for instance, after serious damage was sustained to its building structure.

Yet while evacuations can save lives, there can also be instances of patients who are too critically ill to risk the consequences of moving hospitals. At New York University-Langone Medical Center, for instance, providers feared that transporting six of the patients could result in death -- prompting a small group of nurses to collect flashlights to keep bedside, along with a several-day supply of medicine in case evacuation became completely necessary, CNN reported.

How To Plan Ahead

Government officials encourage residents to pack up an emergency bag, including a week's supply of any medications, medical items or supplies -- and this type of kit should always be ready for an unexpected disaster, not just a forecasted hurricane.

The CDC also has compiled a list of specific to-dos and support for people with various chronic conditions, including cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure, among others (check out their full guides here). Various weather conditions, for instance, can affect the potency of insulin or the accuracy of blood glucose monitors for diabetics, while people with certain disabilities will need a detailed plan for how to get assistance and possibly additional items to throw into their emergency kits. According to the FDA, certain medications need to be discarded if they come in contact with flood water or contaminated water -- check out their complete guidelines (and other health safety tips) here.

Some may also find it helpful to have all prescriptions and doses written down and accessible ahead of time to have on hand if disaster does strike -- Rx Response, an organization designed to maintain public health during emergencies, allows you to customize a wallet card with personal information, blood type, doctor contacts, emergency contacts, medications, allergies and current conditions.

Make Use Of Post-Emergency Resources

Inevitably, there will be some times when you cannot be completely prepared. If you're short on a prescription, Rx Response compiles maps of open pharmacies during major natural disasters and other emergencies (check out their maps for Irene to find out what's open in your area here).

“First, it lets the public know where they can find an open pharmacy in areas hard hit by the storm so that they can get the medicines they need," Erin Mullen, RPh, PhD, CEM., Director of the Rx Response program, said in a statement "Additionally, it helps emergency managers to better meet medical needs in storm-affected areas.”

If you're in serious, life-threatening danger, always call 911. For more information, visit the NIH's guide to emergency and disaster preparedness for various special populations.

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