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Health Campaign Takes a Shot at Sandy-Related Illnesses in Ocean County

State backs county effort to inoculate residents and increase public awareness of dangers of mold, risk of tetanus.

Ocean County residents have been working for eight months to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy – and local health officials have been working for eight months to make sure people don’t get sick as a result of that rebuilding effort.

County officials have been educating people about health hazards posed by mold and trying to protect residents against tetanus if they are injured while removing debris.

The county health mobile outreach vehicle, which is similar to a motorhome, visited the Ortley Beach A&P parking lot on Wednesday, bringing tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (TDAP) vaccines to local residents. It has been visiting other towns at the request of local officials.

“We’re getting a second wave of people coming down” to the Shore for the summer, said Leslie Terjesen, spokeswoman for the county Department of Health. “We’re reaching out to the municipalities, especially the hardest-hit ones along the shore.”

The county has administered roughly 850 TDAP shots since the storm, including 313 in the past four weekends, according to county health officials.

The effort started in the early days after the storm, including public health nurses people vaccines when they arrived at Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster recovery centers.

Residents who visit the county health vehicle also receive information on mold, safe swimming and how to handle debris that washes ashore.

Terjesen said it was important to include a pertussis vaccine in the shots, since the county experienced an outbreak of the disease in 2011.

“It people are dealing with the debris and they get stuck with a nail or something else like that, we want people to be safe,” Terjesen said.

A steady stream of residents visited the vehicle on Wednesday, despite the heat.

Seaside Park resident Gertrude Martin said she wanted to head off the possibility of tetanus. Her family has been rehabilitating their bayfront house since it was hit by the storm.

“If I cut myself, then I’d have to go to the hospital to get a tetanus shot,” Martin said as she awaited her TDAP vaccine. “I guess it’s ‘Better safe than sorry.’ ”

State Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd said the county-level effort helped residents in several ways.

“We want to make sure we’re preventing any types of health problems that people have by educating them to prevent exposure to mold or any other environmental health issue related to building, as well as getting their tetanus shot,” O’Dowd said.

She added that making health workers easily available sends a positive message.

“This is a community still very much in the midst of recovery and to be out there with helpful, supportive public service is such an important community benefit and helps resiliency,” she said. “It’s sort of a two-fold approach and that is what public health is all about – making sure you’re improving the public’s health, preventing any illness and really that’s from a physical and mental health perspective.”

O’Dowd said the local health campaigns are occurring against the backdrop of a broader effort to help communities deal with storm-related health consequences.

She’s been meeting with long-term recovery committees that have formed in several counties. The state is helping with both environmental and behavioral health issues.

This includes making sure that pediatricians are testing sick children for lead, since older homes may contain lead paint that might have been disturbed during renovations. While lead poisoning can only be detected for a limited period of time, it can lead to lifelong health problems.

In addition, state officials are working with healthcare providers to ensure that patients are screened for behavioral health problems, including child abuse, substance abuse and domestic violence, O’Dowd said.

“We want to make sure there aren’t any underlying issues there and, if so, appropriately referring them to services,” she said, noting that this effort is being coordinated with state Human services and Children and Families Department personnel.

“When the community’s together providing emotional support, and health support, you’re preventing those types of stressful events from occurring because you’re allowing another outlet and really providing a supportive environment for the community so they can heal and process in a healthy way,” she said. “Knowing that you’re not alone is really important.”

The county will be offering the vaccines again next Wednesday, July 3, in the parking lot of the Ortley Beach A&P.

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