Friday, December 08, 2006

Respecting the dead in a public health disaster

Sometimes public health imperatives conflict with deep human needs. Take respect for the dead: during the Ebola outbreak in Kikwit, Democratic Republic of Congo in the mid-1990's, international teams collected the dead in full protective gear, wrapped them in thick plastic bags, and unceremoniously buried them in pits. As Pulitzer prizewinner Laurie Garrett pointed out, traditional Congolese burial rites -- including washing the body of the deceased by family members -- helped spread this terrifying disease. Respect for the dead had to give way to epidemic control. Villagers could only watch as fearful aliens in bodysuits carted their dead loved ones away.

But it is not always the case, as the World Health Organization has pointed out this week. Dead bodies from natural disasters do not pose the same health risks as the corpses of those who have died from Ebola, though they are sometimes treated in analogous ways: doused in antiseptic, covered in lime, and dumped in mass graves. This, states the WHO, is totally unnecessary as far as disease spread is concerned, and undermines the mental health of the survivors. In an unintentionally amusing passage, the World Health Organization reassures the public that fatal victims of natural disasters are harmless, because they are really, really dead:

Those killed by natural disasters are generally healthy at the time of their death, and therefore very unlikely be a source of infection to others. The micro-organisms responsible for the decomposition of bodies are not capable of causing disease in living people. Most infectious agents of public health concern that may be present at the time of death will themselves die within hours of the person dying.

As far as post-disaster disease outbreaks go, survivors are far more likely to be their source than the dead are. That is why after a natural disaster occurs, the priority is to secure clean water and food for the living, rather than disposing of the dead in hasty and rude ways. Those who are doing this, please stop.


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