Addressing Misconceptions and Distress
In the wake of devastating loss resulting from disasters and conflicts, there often exists an unwarranted fear and misunderstanding regarding the handling of deceased individuals.
Recognizing the significance of this issue, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the World Health Organization (WHO) have underscored the importance of equipping communities with the tools and knowledge necessary for the safe and dignified management of deceased bodies.
Dealing with Mass Casualties and Distress
When numerous lives are tragically lost in natural disasters or armed conflicts, the presence of deceased bodies can be deeply distressing for affected communities. In response, some communities may hastily resort to mass burials, often driven by the distress caused by the sight of these bodies and the unfounded fear of potential health risks.
However, these organizations caution that such an approach can have detrimental consequences for the affected population.
Consequences of Mismanagement
The consequences of inadequately managing the deceased include long-lasting psychological distress for family members and a host of social and legal complications. Well-executed burials involve the establishment of easily traceable and appropriately documented individual graves within designated burial sites.
These measures ensure the precise location of each deceased body, along with associated information and personal belongings, as outlined in guidance provided by the organizations. Importantly, cremation should not occur until the body has been positively identified.
Providing Support for Better Management
To facilitate improved management of deceased bodies, these organizations offer supplies and expertise to local authorities, assisting them in handling the often overwhelming task of burying the deceased.
Presently, in Libya, teams from the Red Cross and WHO collaborate directly with local authorities, communities, and the Libyan Red Crescent Society. They provide guidance, materials, and training, while the ICRC and WHO supply body bags to ensure the dignified treatment of the deceased.
Clarifying Health Risks and Misconceptions
It’s essential to clarify that bodies of individuals who have succumbed to injuries resulting from natural disasters or armed conflicts typically do not pose a health threat to communities. This is because victims of trauma, drowning, or fire generally do not harbor disease-causing organisms that would pose a common health risk.
Exceptions arise in cases of infectious diseases such as Ebola, Marburg, or cholera, or when a disaster unfolds in an area endemic to these infectious diseases.
Addressing Water Supply Concerns
Under all circumstances, the presence of deceased bodies near or in water sources can lead to legitimate health concerns. Bodies may discharge feces, potentially contaminating water sources and elevating the risk of diarrheal or other illnesses. Thus, it is imperative that bodies are not left in contact with drinking water supplies.
Dispelling Misconceptions About Epidemics
Pierre Guyomarch, Head of ICRC’s Forensics Unit, challenges the unfounded belief that dead bodies can trigger epidemics. He emphasizes that survivors of events like natural disasters are more likely to contribute to disease spread than deceased bodies.
Urging Thoughtful Handling of Deceased
Dr. Kazunobu Kojima, Medical Officer for biosafety and biosecurity in WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, urges communities not to rush into mass burials or cremations. He underscores the importance of dignified deceased management, not only for families and communities but also as a potential component in hastening the end of conflicts.
Reminders from ICRC, IFRC, and WHO
The ICRC, IFRC, and WHO emphasize several key points to authorities and communities:
- Dead bodies should not be hastily buried in mass graves or subjected to mass cremations. Burial or cremation should respect cultural, religious, and family considerations.
- Bodies of those who have perished due to natural disasters or armed conflict are typically not a source of disease.
- The risk to the public is minimal unless the deceased died from a highly infectious disease. Preventing waterborne illness requires routine disinfection of drinking water.
- Rushed, insensitive mass burials or cremations can impede identification and notification to families.
- Dead bodies pose an epidemic risk only when the deaths result from infectious diseases or in areas where such diseases are endemic.
- Lime powder does not expedite decomposition, and disinfection of disaster or conflict-related deceased bodies is generally unnecessary.
Unified Call for Responsible Handling
The ICRC, IFRC, and WHO urge all parties involved in conflicts and disaster response to adhere to established principles for managing deceased bodies. They emphasize that dignified treatment of the deceased allows for adequate time for identification and mourning, respecting local cultural and social norms.
These organizations stand ready to offer further support as needed, emphasizing that responsible deceased management benefits society as a whole.