May 19, 2008

Dead Bodies Don't Spread Disease

One of the most frustrating things I see on the news after a natural disaster is how there are dead bodies laying around just waiting to spread disease. Reporters love this line and use it to spark some interest in the story all the time. But the fact is that dead bodies don't spread disease. Friday the World Health Organization (WHO) stepped in to help back up this claim.

Dr. Arturo Pesigan, from the WHO's Western Pacific Region's headquarters said, "There has never been a documented case of a post-natural-disaster epidemic that could be traced to dead bodies.. the microorganisms responsible for the decomposition of the 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." (AFP)

Here's a quick lesson in biology and ecological succession. The microorganisms that we carry with us, whether good such as gut-loving E. Coli or bad like Staphylococcus aureus (the dreaded MRSA), live in a finely-tuned niche environment that must maintain a delicate balance to not only support the microorganisms, but the host as well. Immediately after death these conditions begin two deteriorate with the cooling of the body, the production of enzymes and proteins stop, and the life giving food the host continually provides ceases to replenish itself. At this time, the little guys that depended on us for a world to live in start to have trouble. Even those nasty viruses are frozen without the machinery of living cells to reproduce. For everything that many of these nasty bugs can do to us we do a lot for them. Providing them with the environmental oxygen, amino acids, carbohydrates, and pH conditions that allow them to survive. Without these mechanisms they ultimately fail, and pretty rapidly.

As the body changes it essentially becomes a new environment and bugs that would not be able to survive in living tissue start to found colonies and begin the process of decomposition. Since factors of a dead body favor these organisms much more intensely than infectious agents they soon outcompete and outpopulate the organisms who once called the body home.

The real threat after a natural disaster comes in the way of contaminated water, food, famine and poor sanitation. These 4 elements combine to present the most easily transmissible routes of infection. Diarrheal disease is really the big threat as it becomes a terrible positive feedback loop once it gets into the water system.

The big issue when it comes to dead bodies after a natural disaster is what to do with them. This hysteria over infectious diseases has led rise to the practice of digging mass graves or mass incinerations to protect the community. But that is unfair to those who are searching for their loved ones after a devastating incident. Of course food, water, and aid are all necessary to the recovery after a disaster, but so is calming the minds of the citizens who suffered through it. They want to know their relatives didn't just become a number in the body count and then thrown into a ditch with thousands of other bodies. These families deserve, just like any other family to be able to see and put to rest the bodies of their loved ones however they see fit. The WHO's Pan American Health Organization makes some important points about this.
-Mass graves should never be used for burying disaster victims;
-Under no circumstances should mass cremation of bodies take place when this goes against the cultural and religious practices of the affected population. The population will be reassured and can better bear the pain from the loss of loved ones when they follow their beliefs and carry out religious rituals, and know that there is a possibility of identifying and recovering the bodies.
-It is necessary to exhaust every effort to identify the bodies, and as a last resort bury unidentified corpses in individual niches or graves. This is a basic human right of surviving family members.

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