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Hurricane Irma Health

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France's post-hurricane St Martin on alert for disease outbreaks

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Orient Bay on the French Carribean island of Saint-Martin, after the passage of Hurricane Irma Lionel Chamoiseau/AFP

The French-Dutch island of St Martin, where white sands and turquoise waters once drew foreign visitors in droves, is now attracting a different kind of population - rats and mosquitoes.


Just over a week after Hurricane Irma devastated the island and neighbouring St Barthelemy, killing 15 people, pools of stagnant water and mounds of trash seem to be the new normal.

Add to that the absence of fresh running water, and the situation is ripe for a health epidemic.

"Yes, there are risks of outbreaks," said Annick Girardin, the French minister for overseas affairs, who spent a week on St Martin following the Category five storm.

"There is an existing problem on the issue of contaminated water, the issue of trash, basically the issue of hygiene."

In poorer neighbourhoods where many families were not able to evacuate, residents fear the spread of mosquitoes -- which can carry diseases ranging from Zika and dengue fever to chikungunya.

"My son has a fever maybe due to a mosquito," said Natacha, a resident in the Sandy Ground neighbourhood near Marigot. "We will have to clean to prevent too many mosquitoes, or else there will be outbreaks. But it's difficult without water."

"If we get sick, we'll have to go to Guadeloupe".

According to an AFP news agency journalist, in some neighbourhoods like Concordia, control programs had begun on Wednesday.

The island, which is still struggling to get its electricity and telecommunications systems back up and running, has found it difficult to reach residents and warn them about the potential health risks.

The French government has distributed notices and posters in French, Spanish, English and Creole.

Still, French health minister Agnès Buzyn said, "We realise there are people on the island, in certain neighbourhoods, who are not following health instructions".

One of the most important notices reminds people that only bottled water is safe to consume, and that if it is unavailable, boiling water before use is paramount.

While visiting St Barts this past week, French President Emmanuel Macron promised emergency financial aid for those "who have lost everything".

As for the Dutch side of the island, the Dutch Red Cross said Saturday that it had collected 13.3 millions euros following a weeklong donation drive.

with AFP