Why dead bodies do not cause epidemics

13-11-2013 FAQ

Wherever a natural disaster causes large numbers of deaths, one of the distressing questions facing rescue workers is always "How do we deal with the dead?"

Surprisingly, the answer is "Don’t rush!" Contrary to popular belief, dead bodies are a negligible health hazard. After a disaster, the top priority is to look after the living. Rushing to bury the dead diverts resources away from rescue efforts and can make it impossible to identify bodies later.

Having said which, there is the question of dignity for the dead, and the sight and smell of dead bodies can be distressing. We therefore recommend moving all unidentified dead bodies to specially designated body collection areas once resources become available.

The guidelines below come from Management of dead bodies after disasters: a field manual for first responders, which you can purchase or download from the ICRC website.

Frequently Asked Questions on the management of cadavers

Information for the public

1. Do dead bodies cause epidemics?
No. The bodies of people who have died in a disaster do not cause epidemics. In a disaster, people die as a result of injury, drowning or fire. They are not likely to have epidemic-causing diseases such as cholera, typhoid, malaria or plague when they die. In most cases, it is those who have survived who are more likely to be spreading diseases.

2. What are the health risks for the public?

Negligible, unless they are helping to move bodies. However, there is a small risk of diarrhoea from drinking water contaminated by faecal material from bodies. Routine disinfection of drinking water is sufficient to prevent water-borne diseases.

3. Can dead bodies contaminate water?
Potentially, yes. Dead bodies often leak faeces, which may contaminate rivers or other water sources with diarrhoeal diseases. However, people will generally avoid drinking water from any source they think has had dead bodies in it.

4. Is spraying bodies with disinfectant or lime powder effective?
No. This does not make bodies decompose faster or reduce the risk of disease.

5. Local officials and journalists say there is a risk of disease from dead bodies. Are they correct?
No. Many professionals and journalists misunderstand the risk from dead bodies after a disaster. Even health workers are often misinformed, and contribute to the spread of rumours.

Information for workers

1. Is there a risk for people handling dead bodies?
People handling bodies (rescue workers, mortuary staff, etc.) do run a slight risk from tuberculosis, hepatitis B and C, HIV and diarrhoeal diseases. However, these diseases do not last more than two days in a dead body (except for HIV, which may survive up to six days). Workers can reduce the risks by wearing rubber boots and gloves and practicing basic hygiene (e.g. washing their hands).

2. Should workers wear a mask?
The smell from decaying bodies is unpleasant, but it is not a health risk in well-ventilated spaces. There is no need to wear a mask on health grounds. However, workers may feel better psychologically if they wear masks. One should not encourage the public to do so.

Information for authorities

1. How urgent is the collection of dead bodies?
Collecting bodies is not the most urgent task after a disaster. The priority is to care for the living. Dead bodies cause no significant public health risk. Nevertheless, one should collect bodies as soon as possible and take them away for identification.

2. Should one use mass graves to quickly dispose of the bodies?
NO. There is no public health justification for rapid mass burials. Rushing to dispose of bodies without proper identification does more harm than good. Burying several individuals together can traumatize families and communities and may have serious legal consequences, in that it may be impossible to recover and identify individual sets of remains later.

3. What should the authorities do with bodies?

  • Collect bodies and either store them in refrigerated containers/dry ice, or bury them temporarily, to allow forensic investigation later.
  • Take photographs and record descriptive information for each body.
  • Attempt to identify each body.

4. What psychological problems can arise?
People feel an overwhelming need to identify their dead relatives. For individuals and communities to recover and heal, it is important that they be able to bury their loved ones in accordance with their traditions, and that they can grieve.

5. How should one manage the bodies of foreigners?
Families of visitors are more likely to insist on the identification and repatriation of the bodies. Proper identification is important for both economic and diplomatic reasons. It is important to keep bodies for identification. Inform foreign consulates and embassies and contact INTERPOL for assistance.