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Circulation of ‘disaster myths’ in Haiti could hinder appropriate disposal of bodies


Myths about the infectious disease threat posed by dead bodies could lead to insensitive and inappropriate treatment of victims’ bodies following the floods in Haiti, and need to be checked, according to a public health researcher who has studied the potential risks at length.

Although most of the media coverage of the disaster has been responsible and accurate, there have been some reports which wrongly state that dead bodies can cause epidemics.

‘Fear that dead bodies cause epidemics in the surviving population has led to measures such as burial in mass graves without proper identification of the victims’, comments Oliver Morgan, a researcher at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, whose paper reviewing the scientific literature to assess the infectious disease risks of dead bodies following natural disasters appeared in the Pan American Journal of Public Health recently. ‘However, in the current situation in Haiti, the risk that dead bodies pose to the public is extremely small’, he adds.

Morgan found that most of the victims usually die from trauma rather then ‘epidemic-causing’ infections. He says: ‘In many natural disasters, the risk of epidemics is used to justify measures such as rapid mass burial. The result is that the victims are often not identified, leaving family members searching for their loved ones’.

Unlike the general public, those who are involved in close contact with the dead—such as military personnel, rescue workers, volunteers, and others—may be exposed to chronic infectious hazards, including hepatitis B virus, hepatitis C virus, HIV, enteric pathogens, and tuberculosis. Morgan advises that suitable precautions for these people should include training, use of body bags and disposable gloves, good hygiene practice, and vaccination for hepatitis B and tuberculosis.

Lindsay Wright | alfa
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