Saturday, January 14, 2012

Miasma and mass graves

I mentioned in class that the fear of disease spreading from unburied corpses is largely unfounded and probably dates back to our fear of miasma. The worst miasma was that created from decaying corpses.

I wanted to chase up a citation for this since this comment was something I originally came upon in a historical paper on miasma. I found this press release, Mass burials do more harm than good, from UCLA Center for Public Health and Disasters that not only substantiates this comment but raises several points I hadn't considered about why the very hasty burial of bodies, in mass graves following large natural disasters for example, may be problematic.

(H)ealth workers said it was a myth that dead bodies constituted an acute health risk after earthquakes.
"As far as public health professionals have been able to determine, this concern has never been substantiated," Steven Rottman, director of the UCLA Center for Public Health and Disasters, told AlertNet.
Rottman said no scientific evidence existed that bodies of disaster victims increased the risk of epidemics, adding that cadavers in fact posed less risk of contagion than living people. 

Indiscriminate burial demoralises the survivors and can lead them to be deprived of transferable pension benefits through failure to provide death certificates for pension holders.
In some countries it is difficult for survivors -- especially women -- to prove their ownership of inherited property without proper documentation.
Alexander pointed out that spraying was a waste of disinfectant and manpower. 

The World Health Organisation has long challenged the often-cited need to conduct quick mass burials after earthquakes to prevent the spread of disease.
"The most pressing issue is preserving the identity of those who have lost their lives," its U.S. arm, the Pan American Health Organisation, said in a report in October. "Under no circumstances are burials in common graves or cremations justified or warranted."

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