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Maximizing the utilization of resources means that some deaths will be unavoidable, especially in resource-poor situations. When resources are limited, you will have to forego trying to save patients whose deaths are imminent or unavoidable. You must be prepared to deal with the consequences as best you can. Considerable improvisation may be required to fashion body bags, to equip holding areas, to set up a body-identification system, and even to embalm a body or to perform an autopsy.

The myth that human and animal corpses pose a public health threat following natural or human-made disasters continues to lead to the misallocation of many scarce resources needed to help the living. Corpses pose only a limited health threat, because even the most resistant bacteria and viruses die quickly in a dead body as the internal temperature drops and the body desiccates. This limits any microbe's ability to transfer to vectors that could infect humans. In fact, corpses pose a much lower risk of infecting people than do the living who are harboring an infection.1

General Population

Dead bodies from natural disasters do not cause epidemics. They are not infected when they die and, thus, do not spread diseases. Despite the hysteria from the media and politicians, the risk to the public from even masses of corpses is negligible. However, corpses can leak fecal material that can contaminate rivers or other water sources, causing diarrheal illness. Don't drink untreated water that has had dead bodies in it. In reality, routine disinfection of drinking water is sufficient to prevent waterborne illness.

In cases in which people died of an endemic, communicable disease (e.g., cholera, hemorrhagic fevers), see that the populace uses the best hygiene possible. Also, try to prevent direct contact between corpses and family members; one way to do this is to give the body to the family in an airtight box for rapid burial.2 Spraying bodies with disinfectant or lime powder has no effect. It does not hasten decomposition or provide any protection to the living against disease.3

Body Handlers

Those handling corpses have a small, but real, risk of contracting diseases through the bodies' blood and feces. Handlers are especially at risk for contracting hepatitis B and C, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), tuberculosis (TB), and diarrheal diseases. However, the infectious agents responsible for these diseases do not last more than 2 days in a dead body (except for HIV, which may survive up to 6 days).3 Tuberculosis can pose a hazard during autopsy or if handling a body when air is expelled from the respiratory tract. To reduce this risk, place a cloth over the corpse's mouth and ensure adequate ventilation in any temporary morgue.4


In austere circumstances, body-recovery workers can wear normal clothing, along with rubber gloves and boots, if ...

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