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Chilean Miners May Not Be Safe on Surface

Photo Courtesy - ABC News(COPIAPO, Chile) -- It has been more than two months of darkness for the 33 miners, trapped more than 2,000 feet below the earth in Chile, and Tuesday night the operations commenced to hoist these miners to safety.  But while the rescue of the miners is a light at the end of the tunnel in every sense of the phrase, the ordeal may not be over just yet.  Doctors are prepared to treat a host of health conditions caused by their entrapment, from skin infections to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Medical professionals said the dark, dank environment of the mine is a breeding ground for many physical ailments.

Dr. Neil Schachter, medical director of the Respiratory Care Department at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, said the poor air quality may cause miners to suffer from pulmonary issues, including a depressed immune system, partially collapsed lungs from shallow breathing and asthma due to mold and dust inhalation.  And, even with the lack of fresh air, the miners were given the go-ahead to smoke while trapped.

"I would expect respiratory infections in this weakened state," said Schachter.

Doctors said fungal infections like ringworm, athlete's foot and jock itch are also likely.  These infections are not dangerous, but are often very uncomfortable. Treatments are available for the miners once they surface, but it can take months to be fungus-free.

Plus, dental hygiene, an issue that is not usually a primary concern in traumatic events, could be a looming issue.  The miners were not able to brush their teeth for the first 17 days, causing some to develop the gum disease gingivitis.  Smoking, diabetes, poor nutrition, and hormonal changes all exacerbate the risk.  Many of the miners have been smoking, and one is diabetic.  Many of their hormone levels are likely to have changed due to the stresses of being trapped.

Many mental health professionals have also said a major psychiatric concern is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, an anxiety disorder sometimes brought on by traumatic events such as natural disasters, accidents, personal assaults or military combat.  Symptoms include flashbacks, bad dreams, frightening thoughts, difficulty sleeping and emotional numbness.

"There may also be depression or guilt reactions to how they reacted while being confined and how people treated each other," said Dr. Howard Zonana, professor of psychiatry at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. "Not everyone reacts in a fashion they are proud of when facing what must have seemed like imminent death."

Copyright 2010 ABC News Radio

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