Disasters claim lives but they don’t kill fond myths. In flood-ravaged Uttarakhand, the myth that dead bodies are a huge health risk persists. Mass cremation of dead bodies is going on because the “authorities are racing against time to minimise risks of an epidemic outbreak”, a news report tells us. Are dead bodies responsible for disease outbreaks? The answer is a vehement ‘no’, say a group of public-spirited doctors who have banded together under the banner of Doctors for You (DFY) and who are providing medical relief in the hill state.
Their arguments are strengthened by what institutions like the World Health Organization and the International Committee of the Red Cross say. In various public statements, both agencies have stressed that contrary to popular belief, Thousands remain missing in India’s Himalayan flood disaster,the bodies of people who have died in a natural disaster do not cause epidemics.
In a disaster, people mostly die as a result of injury, drowning or fire. They are unlikely to have had epidemic-causing diseases such as cholera, typhoid or plague when they died. In most cases, it is the survivors who are likely to be spreading diseases. Epidemics do not occur spontaneously after a natural disaster so the key to preventing disease is to improve sanitary conditions and educate the public. No doubt, there is a small risk of diarrhoea from drinking water contaminated by faecal material from bodies. But routine disinfection of drinking water is sufficient to deal with the likelihood of such water-borne diseases. However, such is the staying power of myths that the doctors’ efforts to clear the air have had little success.