Contrary to popular belief, the bodies of victims of natural disasters rarely pose a health threat to communities, the Red Cross and the World Health Organization (WHO) said, calling for precautions and protection of drinking water sources by keeping the bodies away, according to Agence France Press (AFP).
"Those who survive an event like a natural disaster are more likely to spread disease than dead bodies," noted experts.
Their advice comes after major flooding in Libya and an earthquake in Morocco that left thousands of deaths. When buried under rubble, scattered over it, or floating in water, dead bodies make a terrible scene that often prompts people to rush to bury them.
Authorities often try to bury the dead as swiftly as possible, which can heighten suffering for relatives and create legal problems for victims' families.
Injuries, drowning and burns
Generally, the remains of victims of natural disasters - or wars - do not cause epidemics, because people die as a result of injuries, drowning, or burns, and therefore they don’t carry germs that are likely to cause epidemics, according to the World Health Organization and the Red Cross Society. This means that corpses pose a "negligible" health risk.
However, the case is different with deaths resulting from infectious diseases such as Ebola, Marburg or cholera, or if disaster strikes in an area where infectious diseases are endemic.
"Those who survive an event like a natural disaster are more likely to spread disease than dead bodies," said Pierre Guyomarch, head of forensics at the Red Cross.
Protection of water sources
In the aftermath of any disaster, precautions must be taken to protect water sources, which could become contaminated with feces that come out of dead bodies.
Drinking contaminated water could cause diarrhea or other diseases. The water intended for consumption should simply be disinfected using ordinary means to eliminate dangerous germs.
"It's not the body that's the main cause of danger, it's everything in the water," such as mud and chemicals, noted WHO spokesperson Margaret Harris.
Avoiding rushed burial
But the idea that corpses can spread disease is a misunderstanding which often "pushes people to hastily bury the dead and make it more likely that people will go missing, leaving their loved ones in anguish for years to come," said Bilal Sablouh, regional forensics advisor for Africa at the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The pressure resulting from such rumors in particular could encourage mass burials that are carried out in a hurry and in a way that rarely honors the dead.
"We urge authorities in communities touched by tragedy to not rush forward with mass burials or mass cremations," said Dr. Kazunobu Kojima, medical officer for biosafety and biosecurity in WHO’s Health Emergencies Program.
The WHO and Red Cross recommend the identification of bodies, well managed burials that include easily traceable and properly documented individual graves in demarcated burial sites.
Lime powder does not hasten decomposition, and since dead bodies in disaster or conflict are generally not an infectious risk, the disinfection of these bodies is not needed.