Date, Tue, 28 Dec 2004 / From: Martin Rieder
As I am watching the news about the catastrophe in the Indian Ocean area, I am amazed how often it is mentioned that because of the fear of epidemics, dead bodies have to be buried as quickly as possible. Looks like we are still in the 19th century, with all the theories about miasma (meaning bad air, hence "malaria") and dead bodies.
As far as I remember, several scientific studies have shown that after natural disasters, the dead bodies of victims do not cause any increase in the spread of communicable diseases. It is the accompanying situation (lack of safe water, lack of proper sanitation for "still alive" human beings -- well, lack of everything....) that constitutes a threat. Those who fell victim to the disaster and their bodies do no harm, apart from looking ugly and smelling while decomposing.
Whatever infectious agents the deceased victims of the tsunami harbored while still alive will pose less threat to the public health than when they were alive, and no new organisms will develop while the dead bodies are rotting. The real threat to public health is posed by those still living, some of whom may spread infectious agents, and the worsened conditions that help spread whatever they may carry.
Therefore, the utmost priority from a public health point of view is not to bury all the dead immediately (which is what people on TV seem to be telling us), but to restore the safety of the water supply. In fact, for many of the affected countries, it is not a matter of "restoring" but establishing a safe source of water!!! It will also be important to pay attention to environmental issues like vector control, waste disposal, and hygiene education.
Martin Rieder, DTMPH
LET'S END THE UNNECESSARY AND INHUMANE PRACTICE OF MASS GRAVES FOREVER!