Public health experts say there is little risk of widespread infection from the bodies of the dead killed in a natural disaster like the Haitian floods. International health agencies are seeking to end practices like mass burials that prevent families from interring the dead with their own traditions.
The reaction to the mass deaths in Haiti's floods has been typical of disasters worldwide. News reports say there have been mass burials and helicopters have sprayed disinfectants to prevent the spread of disease. A spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that the most important task is to remove the corpses because there is a risk of epidemics.
However, another U.N. agency, the World Health Organization (WHO), says the fear is largely baseless. Its western hemisphere branch in Washington has published a study in its "Pan American Journal of Public Health" showing that the dead are no more dangerous than the living after a natural disaster.
Oliver Morgan, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Diseases, conducted a thorough search of previous articles relating to natural disasters, the possibility of danger to survivors and those who handle bodies, and the proper disposal of corpses.
?There are many myths following disasters that the bodies of the victims can spread disease among the surviving population,? he said. ?The victims of the natural disasters usually die from trauma. Like the general public, they are no more likely to have diseases that can cause epidemics. Also, once a person has died, that dead body is unable to sustain the infectious diseases for very long. Also, the process of decomposition itself does not pose a risk of transmitting infectious diseases.?
Mr. Morgan added that unjustified worries about the infectiousness of corpses can lead to their rapid, unplanned disposal, often before proper identification of the dead is made and relatives notified.
Mass burials have serious emotional consequences for the public, according to a former official in charge of disaster relief at the Pan American Health Organization, Claude de Ville de Goyet.
?The importance of the proper identification and burial of the victims is for the social and psychological well being of the survivors,? he said. ?It is an essential part of the recovery process, the grieving process, to be able to to identify and mourn your relatives or friends who have died.?
In addition, when bodies are not identified, a surviving spouse or child can be left in a legally uncertain position.
The Pan American Journal of Public Health article conceded that the risks of handling corpses are higher for rescue workers than other disaster survivors, but author Oliver Morgan said that the risks can be limited by vaccinating emergency workers for hepatitis B and tuberculosis, using body bags and disposable gloves, washing hands after handling bodies and disinfecting stretchers and vehicles used to transport them.
Mr. de Ville says the Pan American Health Organization opposes emergency legislation some countries have adopted to hasten the burial of natural disaster victims.