The UN health agency, together with the IFRC and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), emphasized that proper care of the deceased also provides emotional closure for the relatives and promotes public health.
The statement stressed that the fear and misunderstanding caused by large-scale fatalities “are often unfounded,” and emphasized that communities need the right tools and information to manage the deaths safely.
Dignity in the midst of tragedy
In response to large-scale natural disasters or the aftermath of armed conflict, some survivors may choose to hasten burial, often in mass graves, which can have adverse consequences, including long-term psychological problems for family members and social and legal problems.
“An unnecessary rush to dispose of the bodies of people killed in disasters or conflict deprives families of the opportunity to identify and grieve their loved ones, while providing no public health benefit,” said Gwen Eamer, IFRC’s Senior Officer for Public Health in Emergencies and Head of Emergency Operations, Morocco earthquake response.
Misconception about epidemic risks
Research has shown that individuals who have succumbed to injuries resulting from disasters or wars generally do not pose a health risk.
However, an exception occurs when these bodies are near water sources, potentially contaminating the water and increasing the risk of diarrhea and other diseases.
“The belief that dead bodies will cause epidemics is not supported by evidence. We see too many cases where media reports and even some medical professionals misinterpret this issue,” said Pierre Guyomarch, head of the ICRC forensic unit.
To better manage burials, some organizations are outlining guidelines, including easily traceable and well-documented individual graves in defined cemeteries.
This guarantees accurate information about the location of loved ones, associated data and personal belongings.
Caution at mass graves
“We urge authorities in communities affected by tragedy not to rush into mass funerals or mass cremations. Dignified management of bodies is important for families and communities, and in cases of conflict is often an important part of achieving a faster end to fighting,” said Dr. Kazunobu Kojima, Medical Officer for Biosafety and Biosecurity at the WHO Health Emergencies Program. .
The ICRC, IFRC and WHO strongly encourage all parties involved in conflict and disaster response to adhere to established principles for the management of deceased persons.