Originally published in MedPage Today
by Crystal Phend
Aid appears to still be trickling in to Haiti, making little headway against the swelling need for food, water, and medical care after last Tuesday’s earthquake.
Most media reports have acknowledged that the bodies pose more of a psychological than a public health threat. One interview aired on my local National Public Radio station, though, was disconcerting in its emphasis on disposal of bodies as part of the initial urgent response to the disaster.
A few media reports have followed suit, such as the Toronto Sun, which included “contamination from improper handling of the dead, or from animals that have come in contact with bodies” as part of the illness-related fallout from the earthquake.
It is true that fecal matter from the bodies can contaminate water, and that some infectious microorganisms remain active for days post-mortem — up to six days in the case of HIV. But by day two after death, hepatitis and bacteria that can cause diarrheal diseases largely disappear, a Red Cross field manual for first responders explains.
The living, particularly the injured and those still buried in the rubble, should be the focus. Burying the dead can wait.
As the International Committee of the Red Cross recently updated their Web site to reflect, “Rushing to bury the dead diverts resources away from rescue efforts and can make it impossible to identify bodies later.”
The Red Cross acknowledged that what to do with the dead can be a distressing problem for rescue workers, not to mention for survivors coping with the trauma.
Mass burials are often the result, which appears to be already happening in Haiti. One official stated that 40,000 have been sent to mass graves. While this affords dignity, those individuals will be relegated to missing persons lists.
“There is no public health justification for rapid mass burials,” according to the Red Cross. “Burying several individuals together can traumatize families and communities and may have serious legal consequences, in that it may be impossible to recover and identify individual sets of remains later.”
Dignifying the dead in a disaster situation may simply call for a temporary shallow grave or even a sheet depending on the circumstances.
The Red Cross recommends that once resources make it feasible, authorities should collect bodies with an attempt to identify each, including taking photographs and descriptive records, and then storage in refrigerated containers or dry ice or temporary burial to allow forensic investigation later.
Crystal Phend is a senior staff writer at MedPage Today and blogs at In Other Words, the MedPage Today staff blog.
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