Handling Dead Bodies

Click here for the Nepali translation.

Proper Way to Handle Dead Human and Animal Bodies in the Aftermath of
Earthquake 2015

There appears to be a disproportionate fear about spread of diseases through decomposing dead bodies. But the facts state otherwise.

Here are some clarifications and recommendations:

  • Dead bodies do not cause epidemics.
  • There is a very minimal risk to public health from dead bodies. However, If leaked feces from dead bodies contaminate water sources that can increase disease as is applicable for any other forms of fecal water contamination. So purification of drinking water is very important, and the best way is boiling.
  • There is no value of spraying dead bodies with disinfectants or lime powder
  • Those who handle dead bodies should use precautions like gloves and masks to prevent acquisition of already existing diseases of the dead person.
  • Smell of dead bodies is unpleasant but it does not increase the risk of disease.
  • Priority should be saving those who might be alive and not rushing to dispose of dead bodies.
  • Mass cremation or mass burial of dead bodies should be avoided.
  • Should not rush to dispose of the bodies; identification and handing to family and loved ones by a due process should be the priority. That means retrieval and storage of dead bodies for the due process is important.
  • Temporary burial is an option to slow down decomposition of body where facilities for refrigeration don’t exist. Burial should be 1.5m deep, each body should be properly marked, at least 0.4 m should be left between bodies and should not be laid over one another.

It is urgent to collect and dispose of dead bodies when the community might be affected psychologically by seeing many of them, and not usually because of health related risks. This is especially the case with children.

Small note about dead animals:

  • Dead animals also possess very little public health hazard.
  • As a temporary measure, large animals can be sprayed with oil and covered with some dirt before the time and opportunity for full burial arises.
  • Use of gloves, if available, and washing hands with plenty of soap and water after handling dead animals is important.
  • Use of ways to avoid mosquito bites like insect repellants, mosquito nets (if available) when outdoors can prevent mosquito borne illnesses in these conditions, as emergencies such as natural disasters may lead to more mosquitoes.
  • On site burial is the easiest and least expensive method. Open burning is other choice of option. Composting works well for poultry disposal in natural disasters but is a slow process.

Note: This information is based on publications from the World Health Organization (WHO), International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Pan American Health Organization, CDC (Center for Disease control and Prevention) and USDA (United States Department of Agriculture)

Sritika Thapa MD
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine,
Baltimore, Maryland

Subarna Dhital MD
Eastern Maine Medical Center
Bangor, Maine.