Weathering the Storm: Living With HIV During Times of Natural Disaster
Year after year, Mother Nature reminds us that she's not the most mild-tempered entity. Last year, Hurricane Irene blew onto the Eastern Seaboard, bringing power outages and much more. This year, Hurricane Sandy has brought unprecedented damage to the New York metropolitan area, and wreaked havoc on parts of the East Coast and the Caribbean, as well. The general population has a lot of concerns, including food, power, water, transportation and more. However, for those living with HIV, natural disasters bring a whole host of difficulties and fears. In an effort to curb some of those anxieties, here is some practical advice for those who are living with HIV and experiencing complications after a storm.
Two of the best ways to weather the aftermath of a natural disaster are to be prepared beforehand (even more on that below!) and to be observant of your surroundings. Make sure to stay updated on the air and water quality in your area. If your area's water supply has been contaminated, you'll need to use bottled water to avoid infection.
If you know that you have been exposed to contaminated air or water in an emergency situation, it is necessary for you to have a medical evaluation as soon as you're able. Though privacy may be of the utmost importance for you, remember that if you are in an emergency shelter, it may be in your best interest to tell the medical staff of your complete medical history, including your HIV status, so that you can get the necessary care.
In the aftermath of a storm, lack of access to health care, medications, and mail service can leave you living without medical necessities and necessary funds (Social Security, Medicare, benefits checks, etc.). Make sure you have some money and medications stored away in case your financial or medical situation changes (again, see below for more information on preparing for disasters in advance).
Also, if your medication is interrupted due to a natural disaster, please see a doctor who can best tell you how to move forward with your medication. Remember, there is a small chance that interruption of your normal treatment regimen may result in an opportunity for HIV to become "resistant" to medication. Also, resuming some medications after interruption can cause complications. This archived article on getting through natural disasters while taking HIV meds can give you some guidance on how to prepare. But again, the importance of checking in with a doctor after a disaster has affected your HIV med regimen can't be stressed enough!
Electrical outages are a common occurrence after a natural disaster, and for HIV-positive people whose medications need refrigeration, this is just as important a consideration as preserving food. Others have expressed concern about preserving their medications during power outages, specifically Atripla, in TheBody.com's "Ask the Experts" forums. In this case, one of our resident experts, Dr. Benjamin Young, assured readers that, depending on your regimen, you probably have little to worry about when it comes to refrigerating medicines. However, to be sure, call your physician or HIV specialist. If you are worried about your medications being affected by lack of refrigeration, you can also consult a local pharmacist and have him/her inspect your medication.
AIDS.gov has a whole section that's dedicated to preparing for a disaster if you're living with HIV/AIDS, and it's a good idea to bookmark the most relevant pages for future reference. And, once you've read and bookmarked the pages, make sure to go one step further and create an emergency plan for yourself and your family using those resources.
How Can I Prepare for a Disaster?
If you're putting together a kit to have ready in case of a disaster, here are some things to keep in mind. You should include several days' worth of medications in your kit, which will mean planning ahead when you refill your prescriptions. You can read up on planning ahead to have a stash of meds on hand. You might also write out a list of your medicines, including doses and schedules; and be sure to include your doctor's name and phone number. Some of these tips on traveling and HIV might help you get ready in the event of a natural disaster.
Aside from medications, you should put together a kit of the necessities, in case you're without power or access to resources for an extended period of time. Some of the best items to include are:
- Flashlights and batteries
- Candles, with an ample supply of matches/lighters with lighter fluid
- Non-perishable foods
- Cell phone with accessories and chargers
- Things to take with your meds: water, nutrition bars or other nonperishable snack items if you must take your meds with food
Ready.gov also has great resources to help you figure out what else might belong in your disaster supply kit.
Here are some ways you can protect yourself keep up-to-date on what's happening in the aftermath of a disaster:
- If you have access to a computer and are a Twitter user, make sure to follow @cdcgov, @cdcemergency, @cdc_DrCPortier, @DrPeacockCDC, and @VisserCDC. If you happen to be in the New York City area, where Hurricane Sandy recently made a splash, follow @NYCMayorsOffice; if you're in Newark, make sure to follow @CoryBooker
- If you have a working phone, there are several hotlines you can call. Remember, emergency officials will likely be overwhelmed during a natural disaster, so make sure you only call 911 in a true emergency!
- Again, if you're in NYC, call 311, or visit www.nyc.gov/311.
- New York State has set up a Hurricane Sandy hotline that can be reached at either (888) 769-7243 or (518) 485-1159.
- You can contact the Federal Emergency Management Agency at (800) 621-FEMA (3362)
- DisasterAssistance.gov also has lists of local and community resources that may help you find resources specific to your area
Being prepared for natural disasters does require some vigilance, and if you don't have an emergency plan, it's not the end of the world. Just use some common sense and take care of yourself. Remember, the worst of Hurricane Sandy is over now, so the best thing you can do is be an advocate for your own health and your own best interests -- and be prepared for when the next emergency strikes.
Mathew Rodriguez is the editorial project manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.