In natural disasters,
pose no threat of
by the Pan-American
Health Organization (PAHO)
Contrary to popular
belief, epidemics do not occur spontaneously after a natural disaster, and
dead bodies will not lead to catastrophic outbreaks of exotic diseases,
according to disaster experts at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).
The belief that dead
bodies pose a serious health threat often leads authorities to take
misguided action, such as mass burials, which can add to the burden of
suffering already experienced by survivors. This theme arose following
reports that the death count in Haiti due to flooding from Tropical Storm
Jeanne has now climbed above 1,013.
PAHO, which serves as the regional office for the World Health
Organization (WHO), has mobilized teams of disaster coordinators,
physicians, sanitary and civil engineers, health systems experts, and
relief supply management personnel to assist in disaster relief efforts in
Haiti. PAHO/WHO has an office in the capital.
The key to preventing diseases is improving sanitary conditions and
informing people, PAHO experts emphasize.
"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," PAHO Director Mirta Roses writes in
the introduction to a PAHO book
Cadavers in Disaster Situations (currently available only in Spanish). The
fact is that infectious agents do not survive long in dead bodies.
"The worst part of this is that these actions are taken without respecting
the processes of identifying and preserving bodies, something that not
only goes against cultural norms and religious beliefs but also has
social, psychological, emotional, economic and legal consequences that add
to the suffering directly caused by the disaster."
Dead bodies must be managed in such a way that it is eventually possible
to identify them, say PAHO experts.
"Denying the right to identify the deceased or suppressing the means to
track the body for proper grieving adds to the mental health risks facing
the affected population," writes Dr. Claude de Ville, former head of the
PAHO disaster program, in an editorial in the May 2004 issue of the Pan
American Journal of Public Health. "The inability to mourn a close
relative, the lingering doubt on the whereabouts of the disappeared, and
the legal limbo of the surviving spouse or child all contribute to the
many potential mental health problems associated with disasters and the
difficult rehabilitation process that follows."
Dr. Jean Luc Poncelet,
chief of PAHO's Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief program, adds:
"What also happens is that these forced burials hurt the credibility of
PAHO has developed a
list of recommendations regarding the management of cadavers in the
aftermath of disasters:
* Ensure that citizens have complete access to bodies and provide as much
support as possible for their final disposal.
* Burials should be carried out in such a way as to allow later retrieval
of bodies. This means that burials in mass graves and mass cremations
should be avoided under any circumstances.
* Burials in mass graves and mass cremations are unnecessary, as they
violate the human rights of families and survivors.
* Generally speaking, the risk of epidemics as a result of cadavers is
negligible. Dead bodies pose less risk of contagion than a person who is
alive and infected.
* 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 beliefs of those at the site of
* The identification of bodies is a technical process to be carried out
regardless of their numbers, in accordance with established procedures.
* Departing from these
procedures can produce legal consequences that may result in survivors
presenting claims for material and mental damages.
The Pan American Health Organization is the world's oldest
international health agency. It works with its 35 Member States to improve
health and quality of life for all the peoples of the