As flood waters drop, Brazil faces a waterborne disease outbreak

Heavy rain hit southern Brazil over the weekend, exacerbating the already unprecedented flooding tragedy the region has undergone since last April. Of the major concerns right now are respiratory illnesses and a bacterial disease that has already killed more than a dozen people.

The World

Baltazar Corvello Cunha, a volunteer aid worker, lost everything in the dangerous floods that have impacted and displaced residents of southern Brazil for weeks. His life is now dedicated to the aid effort, and in recent weeks, Corvello Cunha has set up a website to help designate aid support to families in need.

Baltazar Corvello Cunha taking a medic to the Guaiba River.Michael Fox/The World

The World followed Corvello Cunha as he took a medic to treat people who had weathered the floods in an archipelago in the middle of the Guaiba River. Some areas still remain underwater.

Baltazar Corvello Cunha points at the devastation caused by the flooding.Michael Fox/The World

On the first days of the tragedy, Corvello Cunha helped save people’s lives while in the water. That’s how he got infected with leptospirosis, a bacterial disease spread by coming in contact with infected animal urine or contaminated water.

“I ended up ingesting some of the water,” he said. “And it created a big wound on my lip. Really swollen and a lot of diarrhea.” 

An aerial view of Ilha da Pintada underwater.Michael Fox/The World

Doctors gave Corvello Cunha some steroid injections, plus a round of antibiotics. It helped, but others who contract leptospirosis haven’t been so lucky. 

While the symptoms could take weeks to appear, the bacteria can attack vital organs, causing fever, renal failure, jaundice, hemorrhaging and trouble breathing. So far, 17 people have died, and there are more than 4,500 suspected cases across the state

“Especially with the mud everywhere. And they’re cleaning without boots, suitable pants, and gloves that protect against the direct contact of the water with the skin,” said Alexandre Zavaski, an emergency doctor in Porto Alegre, who has treated flood victims since the beginning of the tragedy.

A public market in Porto Alegre, Brazil is covered in mud and trash.Michael Fox/The World

Some flood victims don’t want to return, for fear of the disease. Doctors say leptospirosis has become a major concern since the waters have dropped. The bacteria is in higher concentrations in the muddy water and mud left over by the flooding. 

Many families have been displaced since the flooding and now live in shelters, as seen in Sao Leopoldo, Brazil.Michael Fox/The World

That includes homes that were inundated and which people are now cleaning out. Streets across the region are lined with piles of furniture and clothes destroyed by the floodwaters. 

“We see there is a lack of equipment for people to clean their homes,” said Alexandre Zavaski.

A teddy bear on top of rubbles as inhabitants are cleaning homes in Sao Leopoldo, Brazil.Michael Fox/The World

And it’s been raining heavily, again.

Everyone worries the water will rise again, engulfing city streets where the rubble has yet to be cleared, prolonging the tragedy and the toll.

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