By: Patrick J. Kiger October 03, 2013

Emergency Medical Services

In a city paralyzed by a prolonged blackout, a major public health crisis quickly would develop, and it would worsen as the electricity stayed off, according to Dr. Robert Bristow, an emergency medicine and disaster response expert. “Things are going to deteriorate over time, and people aren't going to have access to what they need,” he explains. “You’ll see an increase in demand for medical services at a time when, as the disaster progresses, the hospitals will become less capable of responding.” 

Bristow says that the first likely victims of a blackout will be the most vulnerable segments of the population—children, the elderly, the disabled, and people with chronic medical conditions that require continual medication and treatment. That segment probably will be less resilient when deprived of basic necessities such as food and water, and they’ll be least able to withstand exposure to excessive heat or cold that may be caused when a blackout knocks out heating and air-conditioning systems. 

Transportation woes and the closure of pharmacies may prevent people with otherwise treatable conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension, from obtaining needed medications. Additionally, people with mental health problems may find it increasingly difficult to control their symptoms, due to inability to get medication and the added stress from the blackout. As the need for health care surges, hospitals will be increasingly short on the resources and manpower needed to treat patients, Bristow says. With the transportation system broken down, many hospital staffers may be unable to get to work, and as the crisis worsens, others will feel compelled to stay home and take care of their own families’ needs. Fear of infectious disease epidemics also may influence them to stop coming to work.  Hospitals will be compelled to do without heat and air conditioning to conserve what little fuel they have on hand to power backup generators that are needed for surgical wards and life support equipment. Food, water and critical medical supplies also will begin to run low at some point.

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