Dead bodies from natural disasters and conflict do not generally pose health risks, Red Cross and WHO say

In the wake of disasters and conflict, there is a need for communities to handle deceased bodies with respect and safety, ensuring the emotional closure of survivors. The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the World Health Organization (WHO) emphasize this crucial aspect of supporting communities in their recovery journey.

In the aftermath of natural disasters or armed conflicts, the presence of deceased bodies can deeply distress affected communities. Oftentimes, there’s a rush to bury these bodies, sometimes even in mass graves, driven by a desire to manage the emotional trauma and the unfounded fear that they pose a health risk. However, such practices can have detrimental consequences for the population, the organizations assert.

While local authorities and communities may feel immense pressure to expedite burials, mismanagement of deceased bodies can result in long-lasting mental distress for families and create social and legal challenges. Properly managed burials involve individual graves that are easily traceable and appropriately documented within designated burial sites, ensuring precise information and personal belongings are accounted for, as detailed in guidance provided by the organizations, including the ICRC/IFRC/WHO Manual for the Management of the Deceased After Disasters. Importantly, cremations should only occur after positive identification of the body.

To facilitate improved deceased body management, the organizations offer resources, supplies, and expertise to local authorities, helping them navigate the often overwhelming task of burial. In Libya, for instance, Red Cross and WHO teams collaborate directly with authorities, communities, and the Libyan Red Crescent Society, providing guidance, materials, and training. Additionally, ICRC and WHO are supplying body bags in Libya to ensure the dignified treatment of the deceased.

The organizations underscore that deceased bodies resulting from injuries sustained in natural disasters or armed conflict seldom pose health threats to communities. Victims who have perished due to trauma, drowning, or fire typically do not carry disease-causing organisms when handled with common precautions. Exceptions occur when deaths are related to infectious diseases like Ebola, Marburg diseases, and cholera, or when the disaster transpired in an area with endemic infectious diseases.

In any circumstance, deceased bodies in or near water sources can raise health concerns, as they may release fecal matter and contaminate water supplies, potentially leading to diarrheal or other illnesses. Thus, leaving bodies in contact with drinking water sources is discouraged.

Pierre Guyomarch, Head of ICRC’s Forensics Unit, highlights the misconception: “The belief that dead bodies will cause epidemics is not supported by evidence. We see too many cases where media reports and even some medical professionals get this issue wrong. Those who survive an event like a natural disaster are more likely to spread disease than dead bodies.”

Dr. Kazunobu Kojima, Medical Officer for Biosafety and Biosecurity in WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, advises against hasty mass burials or cremations, emphasizing the importance of dignified body management: “An unnecessary rush to dispose of bodies of those killed in disasters or conflict deprives families of the opportunity to identify and mourn their loved ones while providing no public health benefit.”

In conclusion, the ICRC, IFRC, and WHO reiterate the following key points for authorities and communities:

  • Thoughtful consideration, including cultural, religious, and familial aspects, should guide burial or cremation procedures.
  • Deceased bodies following natural disasters or armed conflict typically do not pose a disease risk.
  • Unless a deceased individual succumbed to a highly infectious disease, the public health risk is minimal, with the main concern being waterborne illnesses due to drinking water contamination from fecal matter.
  • Rushed mass burials or cremations can hinder the identification and notification of the deceased to their families.
  • Epidemic risks from deceased bodies only exist when deaths result from infectious diseases or in areas where these diseases are endemic.
  • The use of lime powder to hasten decomposition is unnecessary, as deceased bodies in disaster or conflict settings are generally not infectious.
  • After any contact with deceased bodies, hands should be thoroughly washed with soap and water or cleaned with alcohol-based hand rub, especially if no visible soiling is present.

The organizations further call on all conflict parties and disaster responders to adhere to established principles for deceased body management, emphasizing that these practices serve the greater good of society. They remain ready to offer additional support as required.

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