The risks of helping in disaster recovery

The recent outbreak of tornadoes and flooding has caused major damage to the lives and property of thousands of people ...

Mary Govoni, CDA, RDA, RDH, MBa

For more on this topic, go to and search using the following key words: infection prevention, disaster recovery, protective equipment, vaccine, Mary Govoni.

The recent outbreak of tornadoes and flooding has caused major damage to the lives and property of thousands of people across our country. We are now in the middle of hurricane season, which brings even more possibility of property damage and the resulting clean-up and repair.

So many dental professionals volunteer their time in these types of tragedies — yet another illustration of the caring and giving nature of the profession. If you volunteer to help in these clean-up and recovery efforts, take care to make sure that you do not put yourself at risk of injury or infection.

First and foremost, wear protective equipment while performing rescue or clean-up procedures. Safety glasses, closed-toe shoes (just like at the office), and protective gloves should be worn at all times. Eye protection should meet impact resistance standards in case of debris that may become airborne. Some good examples of this type of eye protection are IC Eyewear from Crosstex, and Defend Clear Protective Eyewear from Mydent. Disposable eyewear or masks with shields attached are not appropriate in these settings since they are meant to protect the eyes from spatter and aerosols rather than impact from debris.

If you are helping provide medical treatment to injury victims, you should wear examination gloves — and in some situations — face masks should be worn. If removing debris at disaster sites, heavy-duty work gloves should be worn. Utility gloves worn in the dental office, such as Nitrile Decontamination Utility Gloves from SmartPractice, or IMS Lilac Nitrile Utility Gloves from Hu-Friedy, will provide protection from punctures.

In some cases, hard hats are recommended to prevent head injuries from falling or shifting debris. Since hand- washing facilities may not be available at disaster sites, have bottled water and soap, as well as alcohol hand sanitizer solution available.

Since rescue and recovery workers may suffer from cuts and scrapes while working at disaster sites, it is important to treat those wounds as potential routes of infection, especially on the hands. Since nonintact skin can be risky for dental professionals during dental procedures, great care should be taken to clean, disinfect, and protect any scrapes or punctures.

Workers should wash hands thoroughly after handling debris, especially in flood areas, since this debris may have been submerged in water that contains raw sewage and other potential contaminants.

In addition to using protective equipment, any dental professional who volunteers to help in disaster recovery should make sure that common vaccines, such as MMR and tetanus, are up to date. Tetanus boosters are typically given every 10 years, although in the case of a puncture injury, a booster may be given if it has been more than five years since the previous vaccination.

Since 2005, the tetanus vaccine for adults has changed to include the pertussis vaccine (whooping cough). This is an important change since outbreaks of whooping cough have occurred in various states. Pertussis can be spread through exposure to respiratory secretions in close proximity, such as dental procedures.

Measles outbreaks have also occurred recently, due in part to many children who have not been immunized. Many parents have opted out of vaccinating their children for fear of their children developing autism as a result of receiving the MMR vaccine. This puts the children at risk of exposure, as well as dental professionals, who may work with these children in their practices or possibly disaster recovery situations.

It is common for outbreaks of infectious diseases to occur when many disaster victims are housed in shelters and live in close proximity to others. Your physician can give you advice about tetanus and MMR vaccine boosters, as well as any other immunizations that are appropriate for adults.

Many dental professionals provide dental care to disaster victims or on mission trips to underprivileged countries. In these situations, it is also critical to wear protective equipment, practice good hand hygiene, and have appropriate immunizations for the types of infectious diseases that may be prevalent in that specific country or area.

Although the risks may be high, the rewards are many. It is so impressive to see the tremendous number of caring dental professionals who go to great lengths to help out in tragic situations. My hat is off to all of you who help out in these tough times.

Mary Govoni, CDA, RDA, RDH, MBA, is the owner of Clinical Dynamics, a consulting company based in Michigan. She is a member of the Organization for Safety, Asepsis and Prevention. She can be contacted at

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