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Safe Burial Procedures Key to Reducing Ebola Spread

Health workers bury the body of a woman who is suspected of having died of the Ebola virus in Bomi county, on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia, Monday, Oct. 20, 2014.
Health workers bury the body of a woman who is suspected of having died of the Ebola virus in Bomi county, on the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia, Monday, Oct. 20, 2014.

Safe burial procedures are considered key to reducing the transmission of Ebola in the three most heavily infected West African states. The World Health Organization (WHO) says it has developed new burial protocols, which are in line with the cultural and religious beliefs of Ebola-infected communities in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

According to WHO, the majority of Ebola infections in West Africa occur during unsafe burials, because a person killed by Ebola is most contagious right after he or she dies.

WHO Ebola expert Pierre Formenty said burial rites that require directly touching or washing the body make family and community members vulnerable to contracting the Ebola virus.

“During the month of August, I think we were close to 60 percent of the transmission due to burial," Formenty said. "Now, thanks to the development and the creation of many burial teams in the three countries, we have decreased this number down to around 30… What was important with these new guidelines is to introduce, not only safe techniques… but also techniques of burials that will be accepted religiously by the different communities, by the different families, by the different villages, and by the people.”

Over the past few weeks, WHO, working with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and a number of faith-based organizations, updated the burial protocols to take into account the cultural and religious sensibilities of West African families and communities.

Dr. Formenty said these discussions resulted in measures that allow families of the bereaved to perform sacred rites in a safe manner.

“If you do a safe burial, but without the dignity of the persons who are dying, then the next family will refuse to accept the burial team and then, of course, the transmission will augment," Formenty said.

Sally Smith, a community mobilization adviser at the U.N. AIDS agency, says there is no single blueprint for holding a dignified burial ceremony. She says it varies widely among different communities.

Therefore, she says, it is very important to ask people what is important for them and then figure out how this particular rite can be carried out in a safe way.

“One of the things that was important for the Islamic community particularly was that the person was not buried naked," Smith said. "And, that was the idea of then bringing a white cloth that could be laid on top of the body bag, so that then when the body was placed on the body bag, the cloth could be folded over like a shroud…Again, for the Christian community it was maybe reading a scripture verse. They may want to write that scriptural verse and put that inside the body bag with the person or put a cross inside.”

WHO said it expects to reach about 70 percent safe burials in the Ebola infected countries by December.

While this will certainly reduce the transmission of the virus, it says safe burial practices are not enough to curb the epidemic. It says efforts must continue to isolate Ebola victims in treatment centers and to trace the contacts of those infected.