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Dehydration, disease, heat stroke threaten Mississippi workers

Summer scourge

As the death toll from heat rises across the country, you might think Mississippi would suffer more than most states because of the its location in the Deep South.

But Mississippi residents actually fare better than people in more northern states who aren’t acclimated to the heat, says Dr. Robert Hotchkiss, director of the Office of Community Health Services, Mississippi State Department of Health.

“One big reason that deaths from the heat are relatively rare in the Deep South is that we are acclimated to it,” Hotchkiss said. “We live in it six months a year. It is different in the mid-West where some people become very ill in the heat. Over time everyone who exercises regularly outside increases their accommodation to heat. They still need adequate fluid intake, a glass or more of water per hour.”

Too much exercise combined with inadequate fluid intake can be dangerous. But most businesses whose workers spend most of their day working outside in the heat have learned to help their employees cope with the heat. At Ingalls Shipbuilding, coming in earlier in the day is an option for workers who work in areas that aren’t air conditioned. Workers in those situations can come in for a shift that begins at 5 a.m. Workers at Ingalls and other shipyards not only have the heat from nature to deal with, but also often work in occupations such as welding that generate additional heat.

Although Mississippi hasn’t seen the fatalities common in other states, Hotchkiss said it is at this point there is concern about the impact of the lingering heat, particularly on the elderly and infants.

“Heat most adversely affects people at the extremes of life, infants, young children, older people or people with chronic illnesses,” Hotchkiss said. “People 65 or above are most affected, but folks even in their 50s more susceptible to heat stroke than people in mid-life.”

Another reason why Mississippi sees few heat stroke deaths is that most homes and businesses have air conditioning. In states farther north air conditioning isn’t as common since it isn’t needed as much. Hotchkiss said studies have shown that spending at least some time in an air conditioned environment is the most protective thing that can be done to avoid heat stroke.

He also recommends drinking plenty of fluids, avoiding exercise during the hottest periods of the day, avoiding of overexercising, and foregoing consumption of alcohol. Alcohol causes loss of fluids, and can lead to dehydration.

Wearing a hat during the day is advised, as is avoiding being in the direct sunlight during the hottest periods of the day. Wearing light-colored clothing reduces the total amount of UV radiation that heats the body. Wearing a wet towel around the neck is also a time honored way to keep cooler.

While people should drink lots of fluids, Hotchkiss said sports drinks and extra salt aren’t needed. Water is perfectly adequate.

“Certainly if a person prefers sport drinks, that is acceptable,” he said. “But, in general, it is not necessary. Just cool water is perfectly adequately. If you want to take salt, check with a health care provider before taking it. Most of us get plenty of salt.”

On the Coast encephalitis is also a concern for outdoor workers and others who spend a lot of time outside. Although there have not yet been any confirmed cases of the mosquito-borne illness in humans this year, there have been confirmed cases in horses and emus.

“The horses don’t carry the virus directly to human,” Hotchkiss said. “It is carried by birds, and transmitted to number of other species, including humans. This is a particularly severe illness in horses, often resulting in their death.”

Reasonable precautions for avoiding exposure to the encephalitis virus is to avoid mosquito bites. That can be done by wearing protective clothing, avoiding being outdoors when mosquito activity is at its peak during twilight, applying insect repellent, and using screening in buildings if air conditioning isn’t in use.

Not all mosquitoes carry the virus. And, in fact, mosquitoes only rarely carry the infection. So reducing the total number of mosquito bites is the key to preventing the disease. Eastern equine encephalitis is carried by the salt marsh mosquito, which can be found as far as 20 miles inland.

Although there have been no cases of encephalitis confirmed this year, Hotchkiss warns that in years that the virus is active, several cases can be seen at once. “So people still need to be careful,” he said.

Encephalitis is severe illness that can cause death. There is no effective treatment for the disease. Symptoms, including seizures, usually appear four to 10 days after being bitten. The last human case of the disease in Mississippi was diagnosed in 1993.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com.


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