Dispelling disaster myths about dead bodies and disease: the role of scientific evidence and the media

Rev Panam Salud Publica. 2005 Jul;18(1):33-6. doi: 10.1590/s1020-49892005000600006.


For decades, after nearly every natural disaster, fear of disease has encouraged communities, local authorities, and governments to rapidly dispose of the bodies of the victims without first identifying them. In May 2004 this journal published the first-ever review article to comprehensively assess the scientific evidence on the infectious disease risks of dead bodies following natural disasters, along with an editorial commenting on the persistence of myths concerning the dangers allegedly posed by dead bodies. This paper assesses the impact that the review article and the editorial have had on the way that health risks from dead bodies have been reported by the media over the following year, especially focusing on the South Asian tsunami disaster of December 2004. While some media outlets have reported erroneous information, hundreds of other news stories have accurately reported that dead bodies pose no public health risk, and have explained the priority for properly identifying the deceased. Nevertheless, publication of scientific evidence alone is insufficient to bring about public health action. International agencies need to continue their work on producing standards, guidelines, and practical guidance on managing dead bodies. There needs to be a community-centered approach to informing communities about the management of the dead following disasters and the rights of individuals to be treated respectfully after death. Nongovernmental organizations should be encouraged to provide expertise and technical support in identifying and burying large numbers of dead. There also needs to be ongoing assessment of the technical processes involved in the recovery, identification, and disposal of dead bodies, as well as the effectiveness of disaster preparedness plans and communication with the affected population.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude to Death*
  • Burial
  • Cadaver*
  • Disasters*
  • Disease Outbreaks*
  • Humans
  • Information Dissemination
  • Mass Media*
  • Science*