Fears that dead bodies will cause widespread infection following a natural disaster are largely baseless and often lead to mistreatment of the bodies that unnecessarily adds to the suffering of the surviving friends and family members of victims, according to a scientific article that provides the first-ever comprehensive review of this subject. The review article appears in the May 2004 issue of the Revista Panamericana de Salud Pblica/Pan American Journal of Public Health, a peer-reviewed journal published monthly by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).
There is no evidence that, following a natural disaster, dead bodies pose a risk of epidemics, says the article, which was written by Oliver Morgan, who is a research degree student with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and who has worked with the disaster-assistance groups Oxfam and Mdecins Sans Frontires (Doctors Without Borders) in Latin America, India, Africa, and the Balkans.
Historically, epidemics resulting in mass fatalities have only occurred from a few diseases, including plague, cholera, typhoid, tuberculosis, anthrax, and smallpox. However, such infections are no more likely to be present in disaster victims than in the general population. In addition, while some of these diseases are highly contagious, they are unable to survive for long in the human body after death occurs. It is therefore unlikely that such epidemics will result from contact with a cadaver. Instead, notes the article, it is far more likely that survivors will be a source of disease outbreaks.
For the review article, Morgan conducted a thorough search for previous articles relating to natural disasters, the possibility of dangers to survivors and to persons who handle cadavers, and the proper care and disposal of bodies.