A myth too tough to die: the dead of disasters cause epidemics of disease

Am J Infect Control. 2006 Aug;34(6):331-4. doi: 10.1016/j.ajic.2005.03.017.


Myths abound in the practice of health care, death, and disease. Akin to the old adage of swallowing camels and straining gnats, the myth that mass fatalities cause epidemics of disease following natural or other disasters is alive and well. Despite the findings of observers, microbiologists, epidemiologists, and other scientists, even medical doctors and public health professionals lend support to the ancient belief and rush into mass graves or mass cremations the bodies of those victims of trauma in a disaster. Putting this myth to rest depends on use of information concerning the transmission of the organisms that cause disease, the sources of those organisms, and the hosts or suspected hosts that will be receptive to those organisms to result in disease. The information provided by recent investigators of disasters in the region of the Americas and comments from those who have reviewed the literature on the subject of the myth concerning the dead and epidemics following disasters have provided the basis for some concise guidelines for placing this myth in the archives of other traditions without foundation. Education of the public and the news media are the responsibility of those who are aware of the fallacies in this belief to bring about the demise of this myth.

Publication types

  • Editorial

MeSH terms

  • Cadaver*
  • Communicable Disease Control / standards
  • Disease Outbreaks / prevention & control*
  • Disease Reservoirs*
  • Folklore*
  • Humans
  • Public Health Practice / standards