• WHO said bodies of those who die from natural disasters or armed conflict are generally not a source of disease.
• They warned against rushed burials, saying people’s bodies should be buried respectably.
It is natural to be creeped out by dead bodies.
For many people, a dead body evokes strong emotions, including grief, which can be difficult to confront. For some, this fear could be a survival mechanism to avoid potential risks and disease.
In a statement, the World Health Organization says the fear of dead bodies after natural disasters or conflict is often unfounded and rooted in misunderstanding.
Some may move quickly to bury bodies, such as in mass graves, in an attempt to manage this distress, and sometimes because of the fear that these bodies pose a health threat. This approach can be detrimental to the population, the organisation said.
“The consequences of mismanagement of the dead include long-lasting mental distress for family members as well as social and legal problems,” WHO, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said in a joint statement.
The three said bodies of those who die from natural disasters or armed conflict are generally not a source of disease.
“Unless the deceased has died from a highly infectious disease, the risk to the public is negligible,” the three said.
“The exceptions are when deaths occur from infectious diseases such as Ebola or Marburg diseases or cholera, or when the disaster occurred in an area endemic for these infectious diseases.”
In Kenya, about 70 per cent of the disasters are droughts and floods. Other common disasters include road accidents, fire tragedies, collapsing buildings and disease outbreaks.
The three organisations said since dead bodies in disaster or conflict are generally not an infectious risk, the disinfection of these bodies is not needed.
“After any contact with the deceased, hands should be washed with soap and water, or cleaned with alcohol-based hand rub if there is no visible soiling,” they said.
They warned against rushed burials, saying people’s bodies should be buried respectably.
“We urge authorities in communities touched by tragedy to not rush forward with mass burials or mass cremations. Dignified management of bodies is important for families and communities, and in the cases of conflict, is often an important component of bringing about a swifter end to the fighting,” Dr Kazunobu Kojima, medical officer for biosafety and biosecurity in WHO’s health emergencies programme said.
Well-managed burials include easily traceable and properly documented individual graves in demarcated burial sites.
The statement was issued in response to natural disasters around the world, especially after the flooding in Libya. This was before the Israel-Palestinian conflict broke out.
“The belief that dead bodies will cause epidemics is not supported by evidence. We see too many cases where media reports and even some medical professionals get this issue wrong,” Pierre Guyomarch, the head of ICRC’s forensics unit said.
“Those who survive an event like a natural disaster are more likely to spread disease than dead bodies.”
They said an unnecessary rush to dispose of the bodies of those killed in disasters or conflict deprives families of the opportunity to identify and mourn their loved ones while providing no public health benefit.
“Dignified treatment of the dead requires appropriate time to identify the deceased and mourn and perform funeral rites in accordance with local cultural and social norms,” said Gwen Eamer, IFRC’s Senior Officer for Public Health in Emergencies and Head of Emergency Operations, Morocco Earthquake Response.