Friday, 15 November 2013

Dealing with the dead in natural disasters

Pictures of bodies lying in the streets of Tacloban and other areas of the Philippines hit by Typhoon Haiyan are one of the starkest images of the disaster.

Survivors in desperate need of aid are also calling for the relief authorities to clear the bodies of victims, some in body bags, others causing a stench as they decompose in the open air.

But as the relief effort continues, experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) and other organizations have reiterated their advice that the Philippine government should focus their relief efforts on the living, rather than the dead.

"Obviously it's distressing to see bodies on the ground, and the government is doing the best it can, but from a health perspective, bodies are not a health risk," said WHO spokesman Nyka Alexander in Manila.

The WHO - which holds daily meetings with the Philippine government - and relief agencies familiar with natural disasters, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), stress that dealing with the bodies of victims should not be the top priority.

"There is a widespread and erroneous belief, even among some health professionals, that dead bodies are a source of disease and therefore a threat to public health. This is untrue," says the WHO's current fact sheet on care of the dead in disasters, available on its website.

"Contrary to popular belief, dead bodies pose no more risk of disease outbreak in the aftermath of a natural disaster than survivors," the WHO says.

"The micro-organisms responsible for the decomposition of bodies are not capable of causing disease in living people," the guidelines say.

"Dead bodies do not cause epidemics after natural disasters," says the ICRC's field manual on managing bodies after disasters. "Most infectious organisms do not survive beyond 48 hours in a dead body."

"Certain diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis, pose a potential risk for individuals who come into close contact with dead bodies, but not for the general public," the manual says.

The WHO adds that efforts to deal with the dead first - such as spraying the area around dead bodies with disinfectant - "take staff away from caring for survivors and are totally unnecessary." Mass burials without proper identification can later cause suffering for surviving relatives, the organization says.

Friday 15 November 2013


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