By Ed Stoddard
DALLAS, June 21 (Reuters) - Death rates in New Orleans rose nearly 50 percent as the city began its recovery from Hurricane Katrina, in part because of storm-related damage to its public health facilities, researchers said on Thursday.
"The city lost half of its public health workers after Katrina so that compromises your ability to recover. The number of city employees went from 6,000 to 3,000," Dr. Kevin Stephens, New Orleans Health Department director and the lead researcher, said in an interview.
"It is also difficult for hospitals to reopen after they are closed. And a lot of doctors lost their medical records, offices and equipment in the flooding," Stephens said.
The study was published in the inaugural issue of the American Medical Association (AMA) journal, Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness.
New Orleans was devastated by flooding from Katrina in August of 2005.
"The post-Katrina mortality rate for the first six months of 2006 was approximately 91.37 deaths per 100,000 ... Compared to the pre-Katrina population mortality rate of 62.17 deaths per 100,000 population, this represents an average 47 percent increase from the baseline mortality," the study said.
"It is suggested that a destroyed or poorly recovered public health infrastructure, which normally would be able to identify health problems and protect the health of a population, has in fact contributed to excess mortality," the researchers concluded.
In March, Stephens told the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee that just four of the eight hospitals in the parish which includes the city had reopened and they had all done so at reduced capacity.
For the study, Stephens and his team looked at death notices from the New Orleans Times-Picayune to obtain the frequency and proportion of deaths over the first six months of 2006.
They then compared those figures with death notices from 2002 and 2003. They also contrasted death notice numbers with state data on the top ten causes of death in the greater New Orleans area from 2002 to 2003.
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