Health risks lurking in far north Queensland floodwaters

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As floodwaters inundate parts of Far North Queensland, residents are urged to be aware of hidden health and safety risks in the murky waters.

Queensland Chief Health Officer Dr John Gerrard said floodwaters often carry a cocktail of contaminants, including sewage, debris and animal waste, significantly increasing the risk of disease and infection.

“Contaminated floodwater and mud are breeding grounds for bacteria and debris, significantly increasing the risk of infections such as leptospirosis and melioidosis, as well as wound infections, diarrhoea, conjunctivitis, and ear, nose and throat infections,” Dr Gerrard said.

“It’s important people avoid walking or wading through floodwater and mud as much as possible – particularly if they have open wounds or broken skin.

“If you do need to enter shallow floodwater or are handling items that have come into contact with floodwater, make sure you wear water-resistant or enclosed footwear and wear protective gloves if handling soil, mud or surface water.

“To try and avoid nasty infections during and after flooding, people should regularly wash their hands with soap and water or use a hand sanitiser, especially after contact with floodwater, mud, debris, or before eating or preparing food.

“Clean and cover cutes, abrasions and sores with a water-resistant dressing and make sure you visit your doctor as soon as possible if a cut or wound becomes dirty, red, sore, or deep.”

Dr Gerrard said leptospirosis and melioidosis were most common in tropical and subtropical areas during the wet season and could cause serious illness.

“Leptospirosis and melioidosis can lurk in contaminated water, soil and mud, readily entering the body through cuts, open wounds, or even contact with mouth, nose and eyes.

“Symptoms may include fever, severe headache, muscle aches, chills, vomiting, and even red eyes, and usually develop after five to 14 days following exposure.

“Anyone experiencing these symptoms within two weeks of exposure to flood water should visit their doctor.”

Dr Gerrard said people in flood-affected areas should be mindful of potential contamination of the water supply.

Flooding can disrupt water infrastructure, making the water unsafe for drinking and other use,” he said.

"If a boil water notice is issued, it is critical people in affected bring water to a rolling boil and allow to cool before using it for drinking, brushing their teeth, washing and preparing food and drinks, preparing baby formula and making ice."

Dr Gerrard also urged residents in affected areas to be mindful of safe food and medicine consumption.

“Food, liquids and medicines that have come into contact with contaminated floodwater can cause serious illness and should be thrown out,” he said.

“This includes unrefrigerated perishables that have not been safely stored, partially thawed foods, damaged canned goods and packages with leaking or missing labels.

“People should also be wary of using porous food preparation materials, such as wooden chopping blocks, which can soak up contaminated substances.

“The message is clear: If in doubt throw it out. Don’t risk your health.”

Dr Gerrard also reminded people to be vigilant in evacuation centres due to a recent rise in flu and COVID-19 cases.

“I would encourage anyone in an evacuation centre experiencing respiratory symptoms to wear a mask to protect others. Masks will be provided,” he said.

If you have any health concerns, you can call 13 HEALTH. Phone Triple Zero (000) in an emergency.

For further health advice on what to do during and after a disaster visit Disaster management | Queensland Health