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Is Death a Health Issue? Disposal of the Dead Post-Disaster Peter Harvey.

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Presentation on theme: "Is Death a Health Issue? Disposal of the Dead Post-Disaster Peter Harvey."— Presentation transcript:

1 Is Death a Health Issue? Disposal of the Dead Post-Disaster Peter Harvey

2 International news headlines within three days of the recent earthquake in Bam, Iran: ‘ Race against disease in Iran’‘Epidemic fears loom’ ‘Mass graves dug in Iran for earthquake dead’ ‘Disease fears as Iran death toll grows’

3 ‘Iranian volunteers raced on Monday to dig graves for thousands of earthquake victims to prevent outbreaks of disease - or worse, an epidemic.’ ‘The smell of death surrounding them, volunteer gravediggers, protected by inoculations, toiled to try to prevent disease spreading from the dead to the living.’ “Our main worry is the health problem,” a Red Crescent worker named Ali said. “We are trying to bury as many people as we can to prevent it. If we can’t bury all of them by Tuesday it will become a major problem because disease will spread to Kerman and other cities.” ‘The real fear for Bam now is epidemic and disease. Bulldozers are being used to dig trenches in the corner of the cemetery to bury the dead as quickly as possible.’ ‘Hamid Marashi, a UNICEF Iran communication officer said the shallow and poorly prepared graves may still fail to prevent epidemics and “will cause serious health problems in the future”. ‘Victims are being buried as quickly as they are pulled from the rubble to prevent the spread of disease.’ Selected quotes from international news reports on the Bam earthquake:

4 ‘The myth that dead bodies cause a major risk of disease, as reiterated in all large disasters, is just that, a myth.’ (PAHO, 1999)

5 Presentation overview  Dead bodies and associated risks  Management issues  Disposal options  Case studies  Key measures and recommendations

6 The dead post-disaster  In many scenarios, the management of corpses is based on the false belief that they represent an epidemic hazard if not immediately buried or burned.  The primary problems and risks associated with dead bodies are social and political, not health- related.

7 Death and disease  A relationship between corpses and epidemics has never been scientifically demonstrated or reported.  If people have died from the direct effects of war, famine or natural disaster then the risk of infectious disease is negligible.

8 Health risks  Epidemics are not caused by undisposed corpses but where an epidemic already exists, the disposal of the dead may become a more hazardous issue.  Where the person has actually died from typhus or plague, the body may be infested with infected lice or fleas which can transmit these diseases to other individuals.  A person who has died from cholera or ebola may pose considerable health hazards to those in direct contact with the corpse.  Such situations are not common.

9 Water-related disease  Contamination of water sources and the resulting transmission of infection may occur in a very limited number of cases when bodies are in contact with the water system and transmit gastro-enteritis.  Diseases transmitted by mosquitoes such as malaria and dengue fever are NOT associated with the presence of dead bodies.

10 Groundwater pollution  Pollution of groundwater by buried corpses is rare.  Burial sites produce dioxin and furan emissions which are potentially highly hazardous to humans but there is little evidence of resulting groundwater contamination.  Risks from embalming fluids, such as formaldehyde, entering the groundwater are slight since 4 per cent formaldehyde solution is usually used and most of this degrades in the body and soil before reaching the water table.

11 Air pollution  Air pollution can be considerable where large funeral pyres are built; this produces smoke hazards and air- borne dioxins.

12 Mental health  Perhaps the biggest risk associated with dead bodies is that to the mental health of the affected population. This includes the trauma of searching for survivors and retrieving corpses, as well as the unintended social impact of the precipitous and unceremonious disposal of bodies.  The presence of a large number of corpses following a disaster is likely to cause fear and uncertainty among the affected population. It is essential that this is not exacerbated by inaccurate information linking dead bodies and infectious disease.

13 Mental health  Observation of the dead can be deeply disturbing and the odours produced by decomposing corpses may be even more so. It is therefore important that corpses are collected quickly and morgue facilities are provided if bodies cannot be identified and buried or cremated fairly rapidly.  In most situations, the cultural obligation to take care of dead bodies and the mental health consequences of open mass graves and uncollected corpses should be given priority over potential disease transmission.

14 Management issues  Identification Depending on circumstances, the recovery and identification of the bodies of family members may be the primary concern of survivors. Provision should be made for monitoring deaths and funerals to record mortality data and to issue death certificates where appropriate. When those being buried are the victims of violence, forensic issues should be considered.

15 Morgues  In most situations it may be appropriate for the family of the deceased to keep the body after death to conduct a traditional wake prior to burial or cremation.  Where there are many casualties, or where there is an epidemic, it may be necessary to set up a mortuary which should consist of: a reception room; a viewing room; a storage chamber for bodies not suitable for viewing; and a room for records and storage of personal effects.  Ideally, bodies should be stored at 4 o C but this is rarely possible.

16 Protective clothing  In most situations the family will take care of the corpse and will not require special clothing.  Gloves and overalls should be provided to those handling dead bodies from epidemics and bodies with open wounds. High hygienic standards should also be adopted.  Nose masks may be required to minimise the odour effects of decomposed bodies.

17 The use of ‘lime’  ‘Disinfection’ with lime (or chloride of lime) is largely superficial, does little to remove infectious pathogens, and is hazardous to those using it.  The provision of appropriate protective clothing to those handling the dead is likely to be more effective in epidemic cases.  Where appropriate, chlorine solution or medical disinfectants can be used by trained people to disinfect areas which have been in contact with infected corpses.

18 Disposal options  Burial Preferred disposal method in most situations  Cremation A cultural preference not a health requirement

19 Mass disposal: a last resort  Mass disposal should be avoided if at all possible. Family and friends demand the chance to identify the victims of the 1985 Mexican earthquake, expressing opposition to common graves.

20 Burial  Burial sites should be determined through consultation with the affected community and local authorities.  Ideally, an area of at least 1500m 2 per ten thousand population is required.  The use of the cemetery should be carefully managed. Where there are different religious groups within the affected population it may be necessary to provide separate burial areas.  Graves should ideally have a covering of soil of at least 1.0m and the base should be at least 1.5m above the groundwater table.

21 Cremation  The primary constraint concerning cremation is the availability of fuel. It is estimated that a single traditional cremation in India requires approximately 300kg of firewood. Cremation of large numbers of bodies can have a significant detrimental effect on the environment.  Experience is essential to ensure that corpses are cremated at sufficient temperature.  Cremation can cause extreme smoke pollution which may contain harmful dioxins, especially where large numbers of bodies are cremated at the same time. Mass funeral pyres should be avoided where possible.

22 Orissa cyclone  ‘ Priority number one: burning of dead bodies. The dead bodies cannot be disposed of fast enough. The drinking water is contaminated, the danger of epidemics grows dramatically.’ NGO sitrep  ‘Officials have stepped up efforts to cremate bodies which are poisoning the water supply. There has already been an acute outbreak of gastro-enteritis (29 dead) and there are fears of typhoid and malaria epidemics.’ BBC report

23 Orissa cyclone Mass cremation following Orissa cyclone, 1999  ‘ There is no more mass cremation. Whenever we see a body we cremate it. There is no time to do the cremation in a systematic way.’ Local resident

24 Rwanda genocide  The Rwanda genocide is perhaps one of the few cases where mass burial could not be avoided.  This was due to the absence of surviving relatives rather than public health concerns.

25 Papua New Guinea tsunami  ‘ The water in the lagoon is contaminated with dead bodies and disease will soon become a major problem.’ Government official Rescue workers retrieve the body of a tsunami victim out of a pool in the middle of what used to be the village of Sissano in northern Papua New Guinea.

26 Bam earthquake  Risk of disease most commonly stated reason for urgency  No time for ritual washing of corpses but large scale disinfection  Many relatives were given no opportunity to identify bodies prior to disposal  Islamic requirement for same- day burial led to mass graves

27 World Trade Center disaster  Only 47 bodies remained unidentified among nearly 2,700 fatalities.

28 Socio-cultural issues  In general, the cultural practices and needs of the families of the deceased should be given priority over public health concerns.  The process of mourning and burial or cremation will be highly significant and emotional to the family and friends of the dead person. People often expend scarce resources on funeral rites and graves, and where this is their wish it should be respected.  Memorials may help heal wounds and energies poured into this may speed up the emotional and physical recovery of the community.

29 Measures for epidemics  For deaths arising from epidemics (typhus, cholera, ebola etc.) it may be necessary to limit funeral gatherings, ritual washing of the dead and funeral feasts.  Burial or cremation should take place soon after death and near the place of death, to reduce the spread of infection.  It is advised that bodies are placed in body bags (if available) prior to burial, but contact with corpses should be minimised and embalming should not be carried out.

30 Post-disaster measures  Cemeteries or cremation facilities should be planned for and provided early on in an emergency, in consultation with members of the affected population.  Lack of acceptable funeral facilities and procedures may leave social issues unresolved, which may contribute to the overall grief of those involved, causing rather than reducing trauma.  The collection, disposal, burial and/or cremation of corpses requires important human and material resources which should be allocated to the family and friends of the deceased where possible.

31 Key recommendations  Give priority to the living over the dead (provide services and facilities for the survivors first);  Promote the identification and tagging of corpses;  Provide accurate information concerning the risks associated with corpses;  Do not promote mass cremation of bodies;  Do not support mass burial of unidentified bodies in large graves;  Conserve fuel and resources;  Respect the wishes & social customs of the families.


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