URI Pharmacy professor who saw it all after Katrina, Rita acutely aware of public health issues in Japan

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KINGSTON, R.I. – March 16, 2011 – As an emergency medical responder, Jeffrey Bratberg knows too well the horror and suffering that follow disasters like Hurricane Katrina and floods.

But the clinical associate professor of pharmacy at the University of Rhode Island, said he is finding it difficult to find the words to describe the devastation in Japan following last week’s earthquake and tsunami.

Bratberg and fellow Associate Pharmacy Professor Brett Feret will answer questions about the public health challenges in Japan as part of a live student- run webcast, Thursday, March 17 at 5 p.m. Click on the URI Live link to watch the show and participate.

“There is total infrastructure devastation,” said Bratberg, an expert in responding to bioterrorism, pandemics and natural disasters and who serves on the Rhode Island Disaster Medical Assistance Team, which completed two tours of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“Like Katrina and New Orleans, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan have overwhelmed the ability to respond,” said Bratberg, who was shocked by bodies floating on the floodwaters of New Orleans and a pervasive, armed military presence in 2005.

Addressing water-borne diseases, Bratberg said there is a low likelihood of what was seen after the earthquake in Haiti. “However, the drastic and severely compromised sewage and water infrastructure, combined with shortages of fuel to boil water, may lead to diarrhea (but no cholera cases like in Haiti) and other water-borne infections,” he said.

Bratberg said the evacuations should help reduce risk to radiation exposure as long as the winds blow the cloud to the Pacific, which he said does not pose a risk to the United States.

“I am happy to see that the Japanese Defense Force has been testing and distributing potassium iodide, which protects against thyroid cancer and other thyroid disorders caused by breathing air or eating food or drink contaminated with radioactivity,” Bratberg said.

He said people in Japan are remarkably resilient and well prepared for disasters and that they probably felt as though they could deal with the earth opening up and the resulting destruction.

“But I don’t know how they deal with whole communities being swept away,” Bratberg said.

“Even in my role as a disaster medical professional and even considering the level of disaster preparedness in Japan, I can’t even fathom dealing acutely and chronically with this disaster,” he said.

“People can’t find places to sleep, they are trying to find food, all while trying to find lost relatives,” the pharmacy professor said. “Imagine one of the most industrialized cities in the world shutting down for three hours daily because of a lack of power.”

Japan, like the United States and other industrialized countries have well trained disaster teams, but “nobody can prepare them for the mental toll that is occurring in Japan right now. This is beyond anyone’s imagination. When you have immense structural damage, and no fuel to clear it out, no electricity and it’s cold and snowing, what do you do and what do you tell people?

“Officials are telling people to stay in their homes to reduce exposure to radiation from the failed nuclear power plants, but where do you go if your house is gone because of the tsunami?”

In disasters such as Japan is experiencing, counselors, psychiatrists, and medications are resources often underused and are also in short supply.