By Dalina Castellanos, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
1:29 PM PST, November 30, 2011
Nearly 300 protesters were arrested early Wednesday morning as the Los Angeles Police Department cleared the 2½-month-old tent city surrounding City Hall. Clearly, the protesters wanted to continue to Occupy L.A. But leaving the encampment will probably turn out to be good for their health, experts say.
As these activists and their compatriots around the country have weathered heat, rain and snow as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, germs have had a prime opportunity to occupy their immune systems. For instance, workers cleaning the L.A. site have found pillows, mattresses and old foodstuffs. Some police chose to don biohazard suits Wednesday morning when approaching City Hall's lawn, which The Times reported smelled of "urine and old food."
Protesting -- and living -- outdoors may have been fine in the early fall, but in the thick of cold and flu season, having a bunch of people living in tented neighborhoods with inadequate sanitation facilities could put people at greater risk of infection, said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Assn.
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“People should get their flu shot,” Benjamin said. “It’s almost a no-brainer.”
Members of the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West set up a health fair for the occupiers in downtown L.A. on Nov. 19. A number of demonstrators got their blood pressure and blood glucose levels checked. They also received information about ways to get help paying for medical insurance.
"The 99% needs proper healthcare. We should not have to make a choice between meals or medication," said Marlene Brand, a union steward and spokeswoman.
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Many of the occupiers didn't have either of those. Health authorities didn't grant permits for the Los Angeles group to cook hot meals, which complicated efforts to nurse sickened people with hot chicken soup. The Occupy L.A. camp did have some reports of cold and flu infections, but Shakti Marquis, the camp's wellness coordinator, said ailing occupiers were referred to nearby clinics. Marquis said hot food had been donated to the camp, but those donations weren't regular -- or at times very healthy.
The lack of properly prepared and stored food led to another of Benjamin’s worries: food-borne outbreaks of illness that can lead to diarrhea (not a pleasant experience in any case, but we’re guessing even less so in the portable toilets set up at many of the camps).
Also, while donations of food and clothing have been welcome at some Occupy camps, the condition of those items is unknown and they may have strep or staph infections, Benjamin said, though such instances are rare.
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In any case, Benjamin stressed the importance of good hand-washing. If clean, running water isn’t available, he said, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer would be a good substitute.
In the wellness tent that had been set up near the southwest corner of the Occupy L.A. camp, Marquis -- who is certified to give first aid -- led discussion groups and talk therapy sessions for protesters.
The camp tried to approach health -- whether in a physical or mental sense -- with a holistic approach, Marquis said.
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A 2004 study in the journal Nature found that there is a reciprocal relationship between sleep and immunity, but many involved with the movement may not have been getting the rest they needed. If they seemed like they needed a break, Marquis advised them to go home, to a shelter or to visit family members.
Benjamin endorsed that approach. “I’m an advocate for people involved to take ‘time out’ breaks,” he said before the camp was dismantled. Now it seems that protesters will have little choice but to take his advice.
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