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Tsunami Survivors Deal With New Illness

June 27, 2005

Many who survived the killer tsunami waves recall first being smashed by the sheer force, then sucking in mouthfuls of saltwater, mud and sand as they gasped for air and struggled to swim.

In at least one case, dirty water taken into the lungs was likely polluted with bacteria that moved through the nervous system to the brain, causing paralysis to parts of the body, according to a report in the June 23 edition of The New England Journal of Medicine.

The condition has been dubbed ``tsunami lung″ by doctors who treated such patients following the Dec. 26 tsunami.

In the Journal report, researchers documented the case of a 17-year-old female from Banda Aceh, the capital of Indonesia’s Aceh province, the worst-hit area in the disaster which struck exactly six months ago Sunday. More than 131,000 died and some 37,000 remain missing in Indonesia.

The patient was diagnosed with pneumonia two weeks after being dragged about half a mile from her home by the mammoth waves. A week after that, the right side of her face became weak along with her leg and arm on the same side, according to the report.

She then stopped talking and had trouble swallowing. Her right arm and leg went limp.

Doctors aboard the USNS Mercy drained yellow fluid from her chest and gave her a series of drugs. The Mercy is a U.S. Navy hospital ship that treated thousands of victims following the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami and again after an 8.7-magnitude earthquake three months later off the western coast of Sumatra near Nias island.

The bacteria likely entered her bloodstream and spread to her nervous system, resulting in brain abscesses, the report cited Lt. Cmdr. Dr. Stephen L. Ferrara as saying.

After aggressive therapy, the girl slowly regained movement in her face and limbs and was eventually able to stand and walk by herself.

``Without the treatment she received aboard Mercy, it is almost certain that she would have died of complications of her tsunami-related aspiration pneumonia,″ Ferrara told The Associated Press in an e-mail on Saturday.

The New England Journal report documented only the young woman’s case and did not say how many other cases had been detected throughout the region.

Ferrara said the Mercy team treated four cases of tsunami-related aspiration pneumonia, but he suspects many others may have developed the disease and died before help arrived.

He said it is impossible to know how widespread the disease actually is.

``Due to the scope of the disaster, it is hard to estimate a number of potential cases since the actual death toll has never even been consistently reported,″ Ferrara said.

The Mercy’s documented patients were all children and young adults who recovered after treatment.

Dr. Subsai Kongsaengdao from Rajavithi Hospital in Bangkok said he saw similar cases when treating tsunami victims in Thailand.

In an accompanying commentary, he noted 37 cases involving lung infections, including tsunami aspiration pneumonia, that resulted from swallowing saltwater mixed with dirt. All were successfully treated with antibiotics.

He said it’s important for these findings to emerge even six months after the calamity because there may be some patients _ including foreign tourists who have returned home _ who are experiencing a similar condition.

``The doctors may not understand. We want to tell everyone now to be careful,″ he said.

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