Surgeon General: Puerto Rico public health crisis 'unlike anything' encountered before

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams discusses public health in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricane Maria. Friday, September 29, 2017. (Sinclair Broadcast Group)

The United States is working to mobilize public health resource over the long-term to help Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands respond to an unprecedented public health crisis following Hurricane Maria, Surgeon General Jerome Adams said on Friday.

The U.S. Public Health Service has deployed rapid response teams and transported individuals who are in urgent need of care, but both territories were facing a significant health infrastructure deficit before the storm hit, making recovery challenging.

"The situation, again, is unlike anything that we've encountered before," Adams told Sinclair Broadcast Group in an interview on Friday. "We are going to make sure that we do everything we can not only to help folks respond but to make sure the next time something like this happens, that it is not as severe and that the folks can recover even more quickly."

The scope of the destruction has been immense with many homes destroyed and more than 11,000 people still in shelters. It has also impacted critical health infrastructure.

In coordinating efforts with local health officials, Adams noted that Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands "are really starting from scratch."

"This is going to be a situation where we're looking at the long-haul," Adams explained. "We want to help deliver what is needed right now, but we also want to help folks prepare to recover and then ultimately recover."

Recovery will not be quick. The surgeon general is looking at a process that is likely to span months and years. "This is not something that's going to be taken care of in just a day or two or a week or two."

The flooding on the island has also raised the risk of infectious diseases such as the Zika virus and dengue. That situation is being closely monitored by the Centers for Disease Control and local public health departments.

Adams said he and his teams are working to provide people with clean water and clean food to try to curb the spread of vector-borne diseases. "By working proactively we can hopefully mitigate the negative outcomes that occur as a result of a situation such as this," he said.

Puerto Rico remains without power and transportation is limited. Those conditions have cut off many remote communities from accessing the medical facilities and treatment they need.

As many as 400 people have been transported from the islands to receive medical treatment elsewhere, and applied public health teams have been deployed to meet immediate needs. According to the Department of Defense, as much as 44 percent of Puerto Rico’s population was without access to drinking water as of Tuesday.

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