"ALL CAPS IN DEFENSE OF LIBERTY IS NO VICE."

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Disaster and the aftermath: myths dispelled

OR: why mass graves are unnecessary and only compound the horror and the grief

First, I want to express my condolences to all those effected by the recent earthquake and tsunami. It is a truly horrifying event. Second, I want to express my pride in my country for being the most generous nation on Earth and giving more money to the victims than any other. Now... I have a question: Much has been written in the last few days about the dire need to bury bodies before diseases become prevalent an epidemics break out.

Here's a quote (one of many similar quotes from all over the web):

"We have accelerated disposing of bodies to minimize the risk of an epidemic. Also, we have started spraying bleaching powder on the beaches from where the bodies have been recovered," said Veera Shanmuga Moni, a top administrator of Tamil Nadu's Nagappattinam district.

I have long thought that disease was caused by viruses or bacteria, and did NOT spontaneously generate from decaying flesh. This leads me to ask a question: has there been an historical natural disaster that was ever followed by an epidemic caused by decaying bodies? I understand that clean drinking water is an urgent health concern - as it always is, regardless of whether there are countless bodies to bury or not. As a matter of fact, after the last horrific international natural disaster - Hurricane Mitch - there was NO secondary public health impact (though one was feared). This is from W.H.O.:

WHO WARNS AGAINST HEALTH MISCONCEPTIONS IN THE WAKE OF TURKISH EARTHQUAKE

Numerous "myths" are repeatedly broadcast when a natural disaster occurs: the supposed occurrence of epidemics after disasters, the relationship between dead bodies and epidemics, the need for foreign medical assistance, the need for large quantities of medical supplies and camp hospitals, the need to resettle the population in camps, the need for food aid, a return to normality after a few weeks.

The reality is by far different, Dr Michel Thieren, Medical Officer in WHO's Department of Emergency and Humanitarian Action, warned today. "The demand for health services occurs within the first 24 hours of a sudden event. Most injured people may appear at medical facilities during the first three to five days, after which admitting patterns return almost to normal. Patients may appear in two waves, the first (the great majority) consisting of casualties from the immediate area around the medical facility and the second of referral cases as humanitarian operations in more distant areas become organized. Victims of secondary disasters (post-earthquake aftershocks and fires) may arrive at a later stage."

... natural disaster tend to generate false information and principle which lays on no scientific ground. This is particularly the case for the health sector, and relief organization have to battle hard to establish the evidence in relation with the real medical needs, and with the absence of correlation between hurricane and epidemics or between cadavers and large scale epidemics.

The most persistent myth that dead bodies pose a major risk for disease, as reiterated in all large natural disasters - especially earthquakes and cyclones - is just that: a myth. The bodies of victims from earthquakes or other natural disasters do not present a public health risk for cholera, typhoid fever or other plagues mentioned by misinformed medical doctors. In fact, the few occasional carriers of those communicable diseases who were unfortunate victims of the disaster are far less of a threat to the public than when they were alive.

Often overlooked is the unintended social consequence of the precipitous and unceremonious disposal of corpses. It is just one more severe blow to the affected population, depriving them of their human right to honor the dead through proper identification and burial.

The legal and financial consequences from the lack of a death certificate will add to the suffering of survivors for years to come.

Our experience in the aftermath of the Mexico City earthquake showed that health authorities and the media can work together to inform the public and make the identification of the deceased and the return of bodies to their families possible in a climate free from unfounded fears of epidemics.

Moreover, focusing on ineffective and medically unnecessary measures such as the superficial 'disinfecting’ of cadavers with lime, mass burial, or cremation require important human and material resources that should instead be allocated to those who survived and remain in critical condition.

Finally, these measures provide the population with a false sense of security.

Natural disasters such as earthquakes and cyclones/hurricanes do not result in diseases that are not already present in the affected area, nor do they provoke secondary disasters through outbreaks of communicable diseases. Proper resumption of public health services, such as immunization and sanitation measures, control and disposal of waste, and special attention to water quality and food safety, will ensure the safety of the population and relief workers from those diseases which were endemic to the area prior to the disaster.

(Dr. C. de Ville de Goyet - Chief, Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief Coordination Program - PAN AMERICAN HEALTH ORGANIZATION, Pan American Sanitary Bureau, Regional Office of the World Health Organization)

I think the sources I have cited are correct. The rush to bury bodies is based on superstition. It is bad science, and it prevents the people effected by this horrific disaster from being able to mourn their dead with proper respect and closure - IOW: the mass graves - as difficult and as horrifying to look at as any part of this natural disaster - are a totally unnecessary and UNNATURAL (man-made), and only add to the misery of those already so horribly hurt.

We may never be able to prevent natural disasters, (though science and communication may mitigate them more & more), but we should be able to prevent unnecessary and inhumane mass graves.

THIS JUST IN (NYTIMES):
"Even as local health officials out in the field were racing to create mass graves or pyres to deal with the rising tide of bodies, saying the bodies posed immediate health risks, officials of the World Health Organization emphasized that the biggest risk of an outbreak was posed by survivors. The agency's officials said Tuesday that because there was little danger of epidemics from unburied bodies, immediate mass burials and cremations were not necessary. Instead, they said, family members and friends should be given time, where possible, to identify the bodies first. "
SO: LET'S END THE HORRID PRACTICE OF MASS GRAVES!

4 comments:

Lone Ranger said...

The human body is loaded with bacteria, from your mouth, all the way through your digestive system to your anus. That's what causes the initial breakdown of the body in the first place. The bacteria in your intestines is deadly, even while you're alive.

Spear Shaker said...

Astute Blogger:

Interesting hypothesis and good reporting. . . we need to keep challenging conventional wisdom. . .

SS

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