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Germany

No Risk of Epidemic After Floods, Experts Say

Devastating floods in Germany have left behind stinking piles of sewage and animal carcasses. Experts are playing down fears of an epidemic, confident that simple hygienic measures can deter infections.

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The Elbe could now be a potential health risk with untreated sewage flowing into it

As flood waters retreat from towns and cities in eastern Germany, the stench of piles of sodden debris, animal carcasses and excrement has mingled with the fear of infection.

The collapse of several water treatment plants has made it virtually impossible in several towns to treat sewage before it flows into the Elbe River.

There are also concerns that the several chemical plants and unsafe communist-era factories in the region might spill their toxins into the river and contaminate it.

Germany’s boulevard press has also fuelled fears of infection by warning about an acute threat of disease in the flood-stricken areas.

No need for panic, experts say

But despite the general panic, experts and politicians in Germany agree that there is no risk of infection in the affected areas -- provided residents follow some basic hygienic rules.

There is also no need for special vaccinations against Hepatitis A or typhoid at present, they say.

Susanne Glasmacher, biologist at the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin told DW-RADIO, "There is no threat of an epidemic in the flood-affected regions in the classical sense. I don’t expect mass outbreaks of disease – that didn’t happen during earlier floods either."

"What is possible is a risk of infection through the slime and water that naturally contain bacteria. But one can control it with appropriate hygienic measures," he said.

Tips on good hygienic behaviour

Health authorities have been consistently examining the quality of drinking water and advising residents on how best to deal with the clean-up operations and dispose of soaked waste.

Residents are advised to wear rubber boots, water-proof gloves and even water-proof clothing while cleaning out their damaged homes. If they still come into contact with polluted water from the Elbe, they are cautioned to thoroughly wash their hands to get rid of any bacteria.

Further, residents are being asked to avoid consuming foodstuffs that could have come into contact with the flood waters.

Susanne Glasmacher doesn’t see the danger of a Hepatitis A infection either, one that most commonly rises up in such situations.

"The Hepatitis A virus can spread through water and foodstuffs. But for one, the dilution effect is immense when it comes to floods and secondly, we are already recommending the appropriate hygienic measures. And that should be good enough".

Good hygiene key to fighting infection

German Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin of the Green Party echoes the confidence of health experts that all that is needed is a bit of caution to do away with the risk of disease.

He told DW-RADIO that three hygienic measures are of crucial importance in the present circumstances.

"It’s important that the slime is removed from houses before it hardens. It becomes like cement once it dries up," he said.

The second thing, he said that it’s important to ensure that water treatment plants are repaired again. "We’ve decided to operate water treatment plants, even when certain parts are not working properly – that has priority right now," he said.

He said that another vital measure was to allow drinking water sources to be used only once they are checked and the water deemed safe and hygienic to drink. "That especially applies to those who have their own water supplies at home, which is often the case in places close to the river."

Fears of chemical spills

Earlier this week, Trittin toured the Czech chemical plant Spolana in Neratovice, 20 kilometres north of Prague, to assess the risk of leaks into the Elbe River, which flows north into Germany.

"Apart from Spolana, the other problem was the destruction of sewage treatment plants on the Elbe. Both sides agree that it is necessary to renew the operation of the plants as soon as possible", he told a news conference following the tour.

His Czech counterpart Libor Ambrozek said preliminary tests at the site have showed no dioxin or mercury leaks, though final tests on dioxin contamination would only be ready at a later point.

Environmental organisations have expressed fears of a spill or water contamination even within Germany.

Officials have said that potentially dangerous chemicals have been cleared from Wittenberg, the former home of religious leader Martin Luther, or stored safely above ground.

Even within Germany, in Lauenburg, 40 kilometres from Hamburg, two chemical plants have been evacuated as northern Germany braces itself for flooding.

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