If the workers have been exposed to significant amounts of ionizing radiation, a systemic infection could take hold, says Itzhak Brook, M.D., adjunct professor of pediatrics at Georgetown University Medical Center. Brook has conducted research for 25 years on the treatment of infections after exposure to radiation.
Radiation sickness (acute radiation syndrome or ARS) occurs when the body is exposed to a high dose of penetrating radiation within a short period of time. It damages the body’s immune system by killing white blood cells. Brook says there is a direct relation between the magnitude of radiation exposure and the risk of developing an infection. He says, “Ionizing radiation increases the risk of systemic infection by damaging the cells of the gastrointestinal tract, thus reducing the number of “good” bacterial microorganisms in the digestive tract. This enables “bad” bacteria in the gut to increase and overwhelm the bloodstream causing sepsis.”
The first symptoms of ARS include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Brook says immediate steps can be taken to reduce the risk of infection by consuming food with low microbial content, drinking clean water, frequent hand washing (or wearing of gloves) by care takers, and having good air filtration. He says these preventive steps could be especially challenging in the earthquake- and tsunami-ravaged areas around the nuclear power station.
Fever and neutropenia (drop in white blood cells) are signs of a possible infection. High doses of effective antibiotics are used to treat a suspected infection. Antiviral or antifungal therapy or both may also be necessary to treat for infections.
Brook is available to comment to the media about the ongoing crisis in Japan. To arrange an interview, please contact Karen Mallet at km463(at)Georgetown.edu or 215-514-9751.
Note to editors: Brook speaks with a strong whisper having lost his larynx to cancer. Click here to view a television clip of his interview style: http://tinyurl.com/6g9hbxh
About Georgetown University Medical Center
Georgetown University Medical Center is an internationally recognized academic medical center with a three-part mission of research, teaching and patient care (through MedStar Health). GUMC’s mission is carried out with a strong emphasis on public service and a dedication to the Catholic, Jesuit principle of cura personalis — or “care of the whole person.” The Medical Center includes the School of Medicine and the School of Nursing and Health Studies, both nationally ranked, the world-renowned Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Biomedical Graduate Research Organization (BGRO). In fiscal year 2009-2010, GUMC accounted for 79 percent of Georgetown University’s extramural research funding.