with extensive loss of life due to trauma
—earthquakes, storms, human conflict, etc.— many resources are often expended on burying the dead
quickly, and applying disinfectant
to bodies, to prevent disease
. This is an inappropriate use of scarce resources and manpower
. The health risks from dead bodies
in such cases are minimal.
According to health professionals, the fear of spread of disease by bodies killed by trauma rather than disease is not justified. Among others, Steven Rottman, director of the UCLA Center for Public Health and Disasters
, said that no scientific evidence exists that bodies of disaster victims increase the risk of epidemics
, adding that cadavers
posed less risk of contagion
than living people. In disasters involving trauma where there is competition for resources, they should be going into establishment of water supply, sanitation
, shelter, warmth and hygienic food for the survivors, not digging mass graves. Spraying is a waste of disinfectant and manpower. Indiscriminate burial of corpses demoralises survivors and the lack of death certificates can cause practical problems to survivors .
Countervailing considerations include religious and cultural practices, the stench, and the effect on morale.
This advice does not apply in the case of a health disaster such as an epidemic where the victims are affected by diseases which can be communicated by dead bodies.
Roots of incorrect notion
The incorrect notion that all
dead bodies inherently cause diseases
is probably a combination of:
- The incorrect miasma theory of disease, which holds that diseases are spread by foul air—in this case fouled by the stench of decomposing corpses.
- Confusion between normal decay processes and signs of disease and the idea that microorganisms responsible for decomposition are dangerous to living people.
- After a major disaster disease among survivors living in harsh conditions with poor sanitation is common.
- Noting that corpses of those who died from certain contagious diseases (for example, in epidemics) do, indeed, spread disease, such as the case with smallpox and the 1918 flu.
Contamination of water supplies by unburied bodies, burial sites, or temporary storage sites may result in the spread of gastroenteritis
from normal intestinal contents.
According to an article on the Infectious Disease Risks From Dead Bodies Following Natural Disasters by the Pan American Health Organization
There is little evidence of microbiological contamination of groundwater from burial [...] Where dead bodies have contaminated water supplies, gastroenteritis has been the most notable problem, although communities will rarely use a water supply where they know it to be contaminated by dead bodies.
To those in close contact with the dead, such as rescue workers, there is a health risk from chronic infectious diseases which spread by direct contact, for example: hepatitis B, hepatitis C, HIV, enteric (intestinal) pathogens and tuberculosis.
The substances cadaverine and putrescine are produced during the decomposition of animal bodies, and give off a foul odor. They are toxic if massive doses are ingested (2g per kg of body weight in rats for putrescine, a larger dose for cadaverine) , causing adverse effects. If these figures are assumed to apply to humans, a 60kg (132lb) person would be significantly affected by 120g (4oz) of pure putrescine, and would show no effects at all for a tenth of that dose. By way of comparison the similar substance spermine, found in semen, is over 3 times as toxic.