Given the widespread interest in the topic of management of dead bodies,
PAHO/WHO, the ICRC and a broad group of global experts have
collaborated to produce practical decision-making guidelines on this
delicate and difficult task. These frequently-asked questions are an
example of the kind of information contained in a the publication Management of Dead Bodies after Disasters: A Field Manual for First Responders.
Information for the Public
1. Do dead bodies cause epidemics?
bodies from natural disasters do not cause epidemics. This is because
victims of natural disasters die from trauma, drowning or fire. They do
not have epidemic causing diseases such as cholera, typhoid, malaria or
plague when they die.
2. What are the health risks for the public?
risk to the general public is negligible. They do not touch or handle
dead bodies. However, there is a small risk of diarrhoea from drinking
water contaminated by faecal material from dead bodies. Routine
disinfection of drinking water is sufficient to prevent water borne
3. Can dead bodies contaminate water?
– 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, it is not effective. It does not increase decomposition or reduce the risk of disease.
5. Local officials and journalists say there is a risk of disease from dead bodies. Are they correct?
The risk from dead bodies after natural disasters is misunderstood by
many professionals or the media. Even local or expatriate health
workers are often misinformed and contribute to the spread of rumours.
Information for Workers
6. Is there a risk for those handling the dead bodies?
people handling the bodies (rescue workers, mortuary workers, etc.),
there is a small 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 that may survive up to six days).
These risks can be reduced by wearing rubber boots and gloves and
practicing basic hygiene (washing hands).
7. Should workers wear a mask?
smell from decaying bodies is unpleasant, but it is NOT a health risk
in well ventilated spaces/areas and wearing a mask is not required on
health grounds. However, workers may feel better psychologically if
they are using masks. The public should not be actively encouraged to
Information for Authorities
8. How urgent is the collection of dead bodies?
collection is NOT the most urgent task after a natural disaster. The
priority is to care for survivors. There is no significant public
health risk associated with the presence of dead bodies. Nevertheless,
bodies should be collected as soon as possible and taken away for
9. Should mass graves be used to quickly dispose of the bodies?
Rapid mass burial of victims is not justified on public health grounds.
Rushing to dispose of bodies without proper identification does more
harm than good. Mass and commingled burials (pit burials) traumatize
families and communities and may have serious legal consequences (i.e.,
inability to recover and identify remains).
10. What should the authorities do with the bodies?
should be collected and stored, either using refrigerated containers,
dry ice or temporary burial. Identification should be attempted for all
human remains. Photographs should be taken and descriptive information
recorded for each body. Remains should be stored (i.e. using
refrigeration) or buried temporarily to allow the possibility of an
expert forensic investigation in the future.
11. What is are the potential mental health issues?
overwhelming desire of relatives (from all religions and cultures) is
to identify their loved ones. All efforts to identify human remains
will help. Grieving and traditional individual burial are important
factors for the personal and communal recovery or healing process.
12. How should bodies of foreigners be managed?
of visitors killed in a disaster are more likely to insist on the
identification and repatriation of the bodies. Proper identification
has serious economic and diplomatic implications. Bodies must be kept
for identification. Foreign consulates and embassies should be informed
and INTERPOL contacted for assistance.
Information for Responders
13. I am a volunteer, how can I help?
be helpful you should advocate for the proper recovery and management
of bodies and assist in recording necessary information. You might also
assist with the recovery and disposal of the dead, under direction and
responsibility of a recognised coordinating authority. However, you
would first need to be briefed, advised, equipped and supported for
this difficult task.
14. I am a NGO, how can I help?
support for families and collection of information in collaboration
with the coordinating authority will best help the surviving relatives.
You may also advocate for proper identification and treatment of the
dead. NGOs should not be asked to carry out the identification of dead
bodies, unless they are highly specialized for this task and work for
and under direct supervision and responsibility of a legal authority.
15. I am a health professional, how can I help?
survivors need you more than the dead do, but any professional help in
fighting the myth of epidemics caused by dead bodies which may lead to
their hasty disposal will be appreciated. Talk about this to your
colleagues and any members of the mass media who may be misinformed.
16. I am a journalist, how can I help?
help is most critical. If you hear comments or statements regarding the
need for mass burial or incineration of bodies to avoid epidemics,
challenge them. Consult WHO locally. Quote this and other publications.
Please do not jump on the band wagon of alarmist rumours. Be