Haiti Corpses Unlikely to Pose Health Risk: Experts

by VR Sreeraman on  January 20, 2010 at 9:07 AM General Health News
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Decomposing bodies in Haiti are unlikely to pose a major threat to health, although leaving the dead untended or dumping them in mass graves risks intensifying grief and sparking resentment, experts say.

In the popular mind, corpses must be swiftly collected and buried or burned to avoid spreading cholera, plague, typhus and other killers.

But specialists say this is more often than not a myth.

In natural disasters, most of those who die were healthy and thus do not carry the pathogens that cause such diseases, they say.

Indeed, a rush to pick up the dead may well be life-threatening. It could divert resources away from rescue efforts for those who are alive and buried under rubble or in urgent need of medical care.

"The assumed infectious risk that a dead body poses has been discredited by science through numerous observations and by epidemiological and scientific evidence, which while scarce, is documented," says a 2004 manual published by the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Investigations published in the medical press suggest that, in many cases, post-disaster outbreaks of disease can be traced to unclean water supplies, poor sanitation or respiratory infections among sick, cramped survivors.

Corpses "do not generally create a serious health hazard," says a 2002 UN assessment, Environmental Health in Emergencies and Disasters.

An exception is if bodies are polluting drinking water with faecal matter or are infected with plague or typhus, "in which case they may be infested with the fleas or lice that spread these diseases."

Decomposing bodies "are a problem, in that they smell and they look awful, but this is not especially the biggest problem," said Michel Sapanet, a pathologist at the University Hospital Centre in Poitiers, France.

"They do have liquids which have a certain number of germs that potentially can be dangerous. These are ordinary germs which we have in our bodies, mainly intestinal germs," he said. "The biggest problem (in Haiti) is that people do not have access to water."

People handling corpses have to be suitably protected with masks and gloves to avoid infection by HIV and other blood-borne microbes.

Among the guidelines spelt out in the 2004 PAHO and WHO manual is an emphasis on respect for the individuality of the deceased, so that survivors can come to terms with their loss.

Every effort must be taken to identify the bodies and mass graves are to be avoided, it says. As a last resort, unidentified bodies should be placed in individual niches or trenches.

"Any form of mass burial always has a very negative psychosocial impact at the individual and community level since it is contrary to the very understandable desire that everyone has of giving a worthy farewell to our family members and friends," says the manual.

"Another problem resulting from mass burial is that corpses are not identified, which increases grief and uncertainty and complicates the mourning process for the survivors."

In Haiti, though, emergency officials have had recourse to common graves, "given that identification of the dead was impossible," said Stephane Malbranque, a pathologist from the French overseas department of Martinique, contacted by text message in Haiti.

Source: AFP

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