Survivors sick with trauma

Survivors sick with trauma

23 July 2010

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Australia — Health providers fear bushfire survivors are developing physical as well as mental health problems due to the continuing trauma of Black Saturday.

Nillumbik Community Health Service chief executive Amanda Murphy said staff had reported a small increase in cases of unexplained sickness over the past two months, prompting the service to look into whether they were linked.

“There has been some increase in physical conditions but we only have anecdotal evidence at this stage,” Ms Murphy said. “We’re looking into the long-term impacts of the fires, particularly chronic illness, and investigating whether we do need to provide more services.”

Disaster medicine expert Penelope Burns said Black Saturday survivors had likely entered a stage in the recovery where mystery illness was common.

Ms Burns, a GP fellow of disaster medicine at the University of Western Sydney, said survivors were known to suffer medically unexplained physical symptoms such as muscle aches, diarrhoea, cough, dizziness and skin rash for years after a disaster.

“With chronic stress the body gets tired of being told there’s a threat and the immune system can become depressed,” Ms Burns said. “There can be issues such as hypertension and chronic stress that can lead to more serious health problems.”

Ms Burns said GPs at Kinglake were also concerned about a rise in mental health issues.

“Psychological and relationship issues are coming out now,” she said.

“There’d be a lot of frustration now with housing and things.

“There’s a lot of fatigue, and support is pulling out. I think we’re going through one of the more difficult periods now.”

She said it was important bushfire survivors stuck to health diets, exercised regularly and had check-ups with their local doctor.

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