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Fears of Dead Bodies Are Unfounded

Washington, D.C., December 29, 2004 (PAHO)—The staggering human toll of the tsunami disaster has led to widespread reports that rotting corpses pose a serious health threat in affected areas from India to Indonesia. Contrary to popular belief, dead bodies do not lead to catastrophic outbreaks of diseases.

Disaster and relief experts from the Pan American Health Organization -- which serves as the regional office for the Americas of the World Health Organization -- have said that one of the most common myths associated with natural disasters is that cadavers are responsible for epidemics.

The mistaken belief often leads authorities to take misguided action, such as mass burials or cremations, which can add to the burden of suffering already experienced by survivors, according to Dr. Dana Van Alphen, an advisor in PAHO's Office of Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief.

Additional Information:
Myths and Realities in the Management of Dead Bodies (PDF)
Other Myths and realities regarding the spread of epidemics during natural disasters.
Pan American Journal of Public Health: Infectious disease risks from dead bodies following natural disasters (PDF)
Pan American Journal of Public Health: Epidemics caused by dead bodies—a disaster myth that does not want to die (PDF)
PAHO book:

Management of Dead Bodies in Disaster Situations

[Read more]

"In too many cases," says Van Alphen, "authorities rush to bury victims without identifying them, under the false belief that bodies pose a serious threat of epidemics. It is just not true." She adds that such practice is not only scientifically unfounded, it violates the human rights of victims and survivors. Public health experts have repeatedly emphasized that the key to preventing diseases is improving sanitary conditions and informing people.

"Unfortunately, we continue to see the use of mass graves and mass cremations to dispose of bodies quickly, based on the myth that they pose a high threat of disease outbreaks," Dr. Mirta Roses, Director of the Pan American Health Organization, writes in the introduction to a PAHO book Management of Dead Bodies in Disaster Situations. It is a medical fact that infectious agents do not survive long in dead bodies.

To counter the practice of mass burials and to help guide the management of dead bodies in the aftermath of disasters, public health officials have developed these recommendations:

  • Provide survivors with access to victims' bodies and support for their final disposition.
  • Conduct burials in such a way as to permit later exhumation. Above all, avoid mass burials and cremations.
  • Raise awareness among the public and authorities that cadavers do not cause epidemics.
  • Make identification of remains a priority to avoid adverse legal consequences and other long-term problems.
  • Avoid subjecting relief personnel and the general population to mass vaccination against diseases supposedly transmitted by cadavers.
  • Respect cultural and religious beliefs, even when the identities of the dead are unknown, showing respect for the feelings of those at the site of the tragedy.

PAHO was established in 1902 and is the world's oldest public health organization. PAHO works with all the countries of the Americas to improve the health and the quality of life of people of the Americas. PAHO Member States today include all 35 countries in the Americas. France, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are Participating States. Portugal and Spain are Observer States, and Puerto Rico is an Associate Member.

For more information please contact , PAHO, Public Information, 202-974-3172.